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AEI Resident Scholar Michael Rubin On The Latest Crisis In Egypt

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and an expert on all things Middle East. Michael, your reaction to the news that the Egyptian military shot and killed 50 people today?

MR: Well, certainly, it’s tragic, and it sets us down a road in which bloodshed will beget more bloodshed. A so-called cycle of violence, especially as Ramadan is approaching, Ramadan of course starts tonight, but I do think we need to wait before we draw our own conclusions, because after all, if these guys, if the military was fired upon, and if the protestors were waving al Qaeda flags, I think it’s safe to say seldom do non-violent protestors wave al Qaeda flags.

HH: Now Michael Rubin, I agree with that. I am worried, though, that the American public has a very limited capacity for standing with authoritarian regimes that are protecting themselves against revolutionary movements. And we look back only to the Shah of Iran. We know how we condemned the People’s Republic of China after Tiananmen. We know what the British empire did in 1919. We just don’t do that. How much capacity, or how much time does the Egyptian military have to suppress Brotherhood counter-counterrevolution?

MR: Well, the Egyptian military, unfortunately, is going to be having to face this insurgency for quite some time. Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t have its own army, but it does have a cell structure. It does have an eight decade history of terrorism. And have no doubt, some within the Muslim Brotherhood would like Cairo to look like Baghdad, would like Alexandria to look like Basra. And it’s something the Egyptians are going to have to live with. But basically, what the Muslim Brotherhood was doing all along was saying to the Egyptian army and to the Egyptian people, either you jump off the cliff with us or we’re going to shoot you. And that kind of blackmail simply isn’t going to work.

HH: So Michael Rubin, are you expecting a Baghdad-like series of bombings and an Algerian-like civil war in Egypt?

MR: I would see some degree of Baghdad-like violence. I don’t think we’re going to go to the path of an Algerian civil war, in which as you know, two decades ago, up to 200,000 people were killed for the simple reason that Egypt already had a violent Islamic insurgency back in the 1990s, and many people on both sides of that A) know what the price of that is, and B) know that when push comes to shove, the Egyptian army will win.

HH: Well, that…expand on that, because anyone who’s read The Looming Tower, and I’ve been talking about it for so long on this show, hopefully most of my audience has got it or they can go get it right now, knows that that was a pretty brutal crackdown between Mubarak and the Brotherhood. But it wasn’t, it did not have the body count, did it, Michael Rubin, of an Algerian or the Syrian, or even the Lebanese civil war? It was a prison war more than anything else.

MR: Indeed it was, and one of the things that actually has impressed me most, and I think we have underestimated in our own fight against Islamic insurgency, is how the Egyptian military made use of satire to ridicule the Islamists, to make them look silly in the public eye, to take the moral high ground away from them, and it’s no accident that the Muslim Brotherhood, when they came to power, one of the first things they did was take Adel Emam, an Egyptian comedian who starred in these films that were ridiculing the Muslim Brotherhood, basically the Egyptian equivalent of the late Leslie Nielsen. They took him to court for insulting Islam. That really shows just how serious this idea to the Muslim Brotherhood of ridicule can be. And ultimately, the Egyptians need to respond with not only a kinetic response to protect security, but also remind the Egyptians just how ridiculous the Muslim Brotherhood can be.

HH: Now that’s very sage advice. The question, then, for American policy makers is during this interim period of time when brutal and very violent conflicts erupt like they did today, and I’m not underplaying. Fifty, because I’m afraid we’re going to go Shah on this guy on the military, Sisi and the rest of them, and abandon him, that President Obama will do the easy thing like he always does. Are you fearful of that, Michael Rubin?

MR: I am fearful. My criticism of President Obama is this. He’s like a blackjack player that only wants to place his bets after all the other players have put their cards on the table. The real world doesn’t work like that. What President Obama sees as studied neutrality, all the other players see as double-dealing. They all assume we are working for the other side, and that only leads everyone to dislike us – the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth. It doesn’t win us any influence.

HH: Now I’ve asked all my guest today, John Burns from London, Jeffrey Goldberg, just talked to Ben Shapiro, do you expect Islamists from around the globe to now try and flock to Egypt in the way they went to Afghanistan in the 90s, and then to Lebanon, and then to Libya, and then to Syria? Are they all now going to descend on Egypt, and Iraq, of course, to kill Americans, to pursue jihad on behalf of their Islamist brothers in the Brotherhood?

MR: Some may indeed try to do this, and it’s up to the Egyptians to keep them out. They’re certainly not going to be coming from the Israeli border. Sudan, one needs to cross a great deal of desert. Ultimately, however, many of these jihadists are already stuck in Syria. And there’s a question as to whether they’re stuck or whether they’re spread too thin. One of the interesting aspects of this is really, it’s not just an issue with regard to Egypt. Many people see this as a tipping point when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood when it comes to Islamists. There’s a joke circulating among the Egyptian opposition that the Muslim Brotherhood is like the chicken pox. You get it once, and then forever you are immune. There’s the question about whether or not this, I mean, one of the reasons why you’re absolutely right, you could see global jihadists flooding into Egypt, is because they understand what the stakes of Egypt reverting back from Islamism would be much more than President Obama does.

HH: Now Ben Shapiro just said on the segment before this, Michael, that he’s heard reports Egypt is sealing the border with Gaza, because they’re afraid of Hamas sending aid in much the way that Hezbollah has sent aid to Assad. Have you heard those reports? Is that in fact happening?

MR: That is in fact happening. It’s been happening for the last day. Mohamed Morsi reversed decades of Egyptian policy by supporting Hamas and militant Islamists in the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian military wants none of this. And in fact, many of the Egyptian generals have said that one of the turning, that the turning point in their decision to launch this coup was the fact that Mohamed Morsi got up and called for Egyptians to join the jihad in Syria. That scared them. That was the tipping point. Certainly, the Egyptian military is taking this very seriously indeed.

HH: Michael Rubin, John McCain said we have to cut off military aid. What do you think of that?

MR: I think that’s the wrong move right now. First of all, we have two conflicting mandates. One is the U.S. law, which states that there can be no military aid to a government which has been over, a democratic government which has been overthrown by the military. And that seems to be a clear cut case. This was a military coup. But on the other hand, we had the Camp David Accord, which guaranteed $1.3 billion dollars in U.S. aid to the Egyptian military if they preserved the peace treaty with Israel. And therefore, I think we do have some wiggle room here. The question we need to ask ourselves is what leverage do we get for that aid? If we want the Egyptian military to step down, and if that aid provides a bulk of their salaries, certainly we might have more leverage if we pay that, than if we suddenly turn our back on the Egyptian military.

HH: Michael Rubin, I just don’t know the answer to this, maybe you do. Did the Camp David Accord precede or follow the anti-coup law?

MR: The anti-coup law was actually rewritten just in the last few years. But this is one issue which I asked some Senate staffers today, and they simply said they do not know. It’s one of those issues which the lawyers would need to work out.

HH: Interesting, interesting. Very, very good stuff. Michael Rubin of AEI, thank you. We’ll be checking in with you a lot as this crisis continues.

End of interview.

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