Back from Boston. Baseball fans might have noticed that my temporary presence on the Red Sox roster seems to have made a difference. I didn't make it to the mound, but I'd like to think that my steadying veteran presence made a contribution - Curt Schilling, in particular, seemed to appreciate having a fellow blogger around.
On the academic side, I thorougly enjoyed the Crown Center's conference on the Middle East. It was fascinating to see Iran experts Naghmeh Sohrabi and Farideh Farhi mix it up with a former Israeli defense official about Iranian intentions, to see Josh Landis and Itamar Rabinovich debate Syria's attitudes towards peace with Israel, to finally meet the distinguished Israeli historian of Jordan Asher Susser, and more (I won't even mention the challenges posed by the stage setup to the, shall we say, differently gendered when said gender happened to be wearing a skirt). One of the most interesting themes running through the conference - notably by Roger Owen and Jon Alterman - about the increasingly Asian orientation of Gulf economies and societies. That's something to which I haven't given enough thought, and it does raise some provocative questions... for another day.
For me personally, the highlight was the chance to debate the Muslim Brotherhood in public and private with the well-known Egyptian political scientist Abd el-Monem Said (director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, member of the NDP's Policy Bureau, and prolific columnist for al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Ahram, and other newspapers). Said was one of the first and most prominent critics of the MB's draft political party platform, and has been a long-time skeptic of the Brotherhood's democratic credentials. I won't say anything here about our lengthy private discussions, but our public exchanges brought out some very interesting and constructive points of disagreement.
We basically agreed in characterizing the MB as a divided organization which has been struggling to define its goals and its strategies in the face of both internal disagreements and a rapidly changing political environment. But where I am impressed by the potential and performance of the MB's pragmatists over the last few years, Said sees the hard-line, conservative face presented in the draft party document as the majority trend within the MB. Despite the MB's willingness to participate in elections, Said sees the MB as inherently undemocratic in its goals and methods: he described their agenda of social transformation and the creation of new Islamic individuals as totalitarian by nature, and their attempt to evaluate legislation in terms of religious dictates of right and wrong as contrary to the spirit of pragmatic problem solving and bargaining. The devil is in the details, he argued, and even the seemingly liberal documents produced by the Brotherhood over the last few years fail to impress him as genuinely democratic. Finally, he disputed the claim that the Brotherhood is experience significant repression - for an organization of perhaps 100,000 members the arrest of a few dozen or even few hundred leaders isn't that big a deal.
I disagreed about how to read the earlier MB political documents - the 2004 reform document, the 2005 Parliamentary election platform, the 2007 Shura Council election platform, and others. I think that he seriously underestimates the importance of the evolution of the MB's political discourse in the direction of an embrace of democracy and public freedoms. I also think he profoundly understates the repressive turn in Egypt over the last few years, and the corrosive effect on the rule of law of such things as using military courts against Brotherhood leaders and going after opposition journalists on flimsy pretenses. I also didn't think that he had a good answer to my arguments about how the MB had demonstrated its democratic commitments through both words and deeds over the last few years - in electoral participation in 2005 and 2007, in refraining from demonstrations and protests, in its policy documents, and simply in remaining committed to the electoral realm despite all efforts to force it to retreat. Of course the Brotherhood has not become liberal, but it has done pretty much everything it can do to prove its commitment to the democratic process short of running in an election, winning, governing, losing an election, and surrendering power peacefully - none of which is likely to be a realistic possibility any time soon.
At any rate, I'll make this case much more systematically - with footnotes and everything! - in a paper coming out quite soon. These arguments won't be resolved any time soon, and it's great to have them in such a constructive way. I've already benefited from his comments on a previous draft, and since he does read Abu Aardvark, I hope that he'll send me a note if I've mischaracterized his public statements in any way - or if he wants to continue the discussion here!
Abd el-Monem Said also made one other very interesting remark during the open session worth highlighting here. I asked him about what he thought, as a political scientist and as a member of the NDP's Policy Committee, about what would happen when Hosni Mubarak left the scene. His response: absolutely, categorically, 100% definitively, Gamal Mubarak will not become President. He said that the succession issue had been driven by the political opposition and by the foreign media, but had little to do with reality. If Mubarak lasted until the next election, then there would be an open competition for the NDP nomination, in which Gamal would have a chance but would not be likely to muster a majority from among the various barons and cadres of the NDP. If Mubarak passed on before the next scheduled election, the likely next President would be neither Gamal nor someone from the military. It would be the Secretary-General of the NDP - Safwat al-Sharif. I thought that was kind of an interesting analysis; Egypt-watchers, have at it.
UPDATE: Abd el-Monem Said offers his thoughts in his al-Sharq al-Awsat column today, here. He says that it is a rare bit of good news that the MB has announced that it will review the draft party proposal, but that he does not expect it to be a real change because the problems with Brotherhood ideology run too deep.
UPDATE 2: And a full response here, elevated from comments:
I think you have misrepresented my comments. There was no defense of the government repression of the Brothers. I did denounce it in public in newspapers articles the military courts and other forms of extra legal treatment of the Brothers. Yet, I did not see that as repressive as Nasser did, nor as Assad did in Hama. There is was never a massive assualt on the Brothers to arrest the supreme guide or to arrest their members of Parliament. That does not make the repression nice or commendable. It is just to put the analysis in perspective; and more important to make it a justfication for the totalitarian views of the Brothers. I have pointed in clear terms their record in Parliament regarding the Bahais, the converted Muslims to christianity, the Higab issue, and their programs from 2004 onward which speaks for the creation of the " faithful man" through a process of indoctronation customary of totalitarian parties. Their socio-economic very interventionist program and their national security perspective is typical of parties which are ready to whip their population for a frenzy of hatred of the others. Abdel Monem Said Aly