Daylight Between Friedman and Kristof on Egypt

When it comes to commentary on Israel, The New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof operate as a tag-team, metaphorically body-slamming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the mat whenever an opportunity presents. But a little daylight has appeared between the two as they puzzle over the Arab Spring. Columns recently written by each on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt offer a glimpse of their differences.

On Dec. 13, 2011, in “Joining a Dinner in a Muslim Brotherhood Home,” Kristof describes an enchanting evening dining with the modern face of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt:

First, meet my hostess: Sondos Asem, a 24-year-old woman who is pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical bearded Brotherhood activist. Sondos is a middle-class graduate of the American University in Cairo, where I studied in the early 1980s (“that’s before I was born,” she said wonderingly, making me feel particularly decrepit).

She speaks perfect English, is writing a master’s thesis on social media, and helps run the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb.

The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the dominant political party in parliamentary voting because of people like Sondos and her family. My interviews with supporters suggest that the Brotherhood is far more complex than the caricature that scares many Americans.

Friedman, however, in “Trust but Verify” on Jan. 18, 2012, is not so upbeat. After describing a cordial meeting between the Muslim Brotherhood and an American official, he recalls a report from the Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks the Arab media, about recent writings on the Muslim Brotherhood Web site, It said the site ”contains articles with anti-Semitic motifs, including Holocaust denials and descriptions of the ‘Jewish character’ as covetous, exploitative, and a source of evil in human society. …Among these are articles calling to kill Zionists and praising the Sept. 9, 2011, attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo — which one article called a landmark of the Egyptian revolution.”

Kristof, however, does not share Friedman’s brooding over the Brotherhood’s darker side. Instead, Kristof prefers to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged modernizing role in Egyptian society. His young hostess dismisses the notion that the “Muslim Brotherhood would oppress women.” ”It’s a big misconception that the Muslim Brotherhood marginalizes women,” Sondos said. ”Fifty percent of the Brotherhood are women.”

She continues to tell him, ”I don’t think Egypt can ever be compared to Saudi Arabia or Iran or Afghanistan. … We, as Egyptians, are religiously very moderate.” Kristof makes no mention of the recent mob violence directed against the Copts, Egypt’s native Christian population. Might broaching the topic have been viewed as poor dinner etiquette?

Friedman is not as easily persuaded by the depiction of a tolerant Brotherhood. He recites how Naguib Sawiris — an Egyptian telecommunications mogul and Coptic Christian who is the founder of one of Egypt’s new secular, liberal parties — was being charged with ”contempt of religion” for re-tweeting images from last June that show Mickey Mouse with a full beard and wearing a traditional Islamic robe and Minnie Mouse wearing a full-face veil with just slits for her eyes.

While Kristof’s hostess offers that “A much better model for Egypt … is Turkey, where an Islamic party is presiding over an economic boom” Friedman isn’t impressed. He writes, “In the happy talk department, please don’t tell me that the rule of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., proves that no one has anything to fear about Islamists taking power democratically.” Friedman is right to be concerned by recent trends in Turkey. Independent courts and media have been suppressed, the military – traditional guarantor of the secular constitution – purged and much of Turkey’s economic growth appears to have been based on financial bubbles.

Instead, Friedman offers two possibilities:

One is that the Brotherhood and other Islamists are cleverly hoodwinking the naive foreigners, feeding them the lines they want to hear. The other is that the Islamists never expected to be dominating Egypt’s new Parliament … and they are trying to figure out how to reconcile some of their ideology with all of their new responsibilities.

Neither of these two views reflects the optimism relayed by Kristof’s hostess. What’s more, Friedman seems just a little tired of the glib portrayal of a moderate modernizing Brotherhood. He writes,
In my mind, we all have to guard against lazy happy talk about the rise of the Islamist parties in Egypt ‘I’ve met with them; they all seem reasonable’ and lazy determinism ‘Just read what they say in Arabic; they clearly have a secret plan to take over Egypt’.

Egypt is not destined to be Iran, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not destined to be the Muslim version of Christian Democrats either.

In dismissing what he terms “lazy determinism” Friedman himself may be guilty of “lazy” habit. A Jan. 26 2012 Op-Ed in the Washington Post on Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Double-Talk by David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy discusses the distinctively different tone and sentiments expressed on its English versus Arabic Web Sites. Nevertheless one might suspect Friedman’s comment about “lazy happy talk” was a barb directed at his colleague Kristof.

Kristof engages in precisely the sort of “happy talk” Friedman disdains. Kristof’s hostess assuages his concerns about the Brotherhood’s strict societal code on female modesty, alcohol and conflicting positions regarding maintaining peace with Israel. The Brotherhood’s priority is jobs, she assures him. ”Egyptians are now concerned about economic conditions,” she said. ”They want to reform their economic system and to have jobs. They want to eliminate corruption.”
A similar anti-corruption theme was advanced by the media to explain the 2006 election victory of Hamas – the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – in Gaza and the West Bank. Thereafter Hamas chose to emphasize attacking Israel over economic development.
The reassurance of his young hostess is good enough for Kristof. He concludes:
So a bit of nervousness is fine, but let’s not overdo the hand-wringing — or lose perspective. What’s historic in Egypt today is not so much the rise of any one party as the apparent slow emergence of democracy in the heart of the Arab world.

For Friedman, not so fast. In a follow up column on Feb. 29, 2012 “There be Dragons”, Friedman laments,

After the onset of the Arab awakenings, it was reasonable to be, at worst, agnostic and, at best, hopeful about the prospect of these countries making the difficult transition from autocracy to democracy. But recently, looking honestly at the region, one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying.

He concludes, “The Arab/Muslim awakening phase is over… and I just hope it doesn’t end — as it often does in the land of dragons — with extremists going all the way and the moderates just going away.”

Although Friedman and Kristof appear tethered in their disdain for the Netanyahu government in Israel, the only one in the region resulting from Western-style elections and coalition-building, when it comes to the broader changes in the Middle East, apparently they are not identical twins; regarding the Muslim Brotherhood building democracy in Egypt, Friedman retains enough journalistic skepticism to suspect a mirage, while Kristof, in the tradition of oft-fooled Western journalists attending foreign revolutions, reenacts the role of dupe.


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