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Live Chat: Robert Scheer on Egypt
Posted on Feb 11, 2011
In a live video Q & A session, Truthdig Editor and columnist Robert Scheer answered readers’ questions on his latest column, “Hey Obama, Read WikiLeaks,” and on the uprising in Egypt. You can watch the video, listen to the podcast, and read the full transcript below.
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Kasia Anderson: Greetings, everyone. [Welcome] to the Truthdig Robert Scheer live chat. We are going to be discussing your column, Bob, from this week, which very appropriately is about Egypt. But why don’t we start by just getting your initial thoughts on what’s going on this Friday, this momentous day, over in Egypt? What’s your reaction?
Robert Scheer: Oh, I think the Egyptian people distinguished themselves. They restored the great luster of Egyptian civilization. A great culture had stagnated under monarchies and secular dictatorships. And these people didn’t back down; mostly very young, they held out. I think the governments of the West were quite willing to betray them up to a point, but the people didn’t fold. And I think this is going to change world politics, I think … certainly beginning with the region. Egypt is the Arab world; there’s no question about it. I mean, it’s the most important country, not in terms of resources, unfortunately, but certainly population, education, what have you. And, you know, the idea that people can speak out, act out, and take great risks in a nonviolent way for democracy—it’s momentous. It’s on the order of Nelson Mandela in South Africa; it’s on the order of Martin Luther King.
And I think Barack Obama and his statement finally embraced that. His statement after the downfall of Mubarak was poetic, it was to the point; it captured the majesty of the moment. And I don’t think the politics of that area are ever going to be the same; I don’t think any dictator in the world is going to sit secure after this. And what we really see is the combination of modern technology, visibility—there aren’t these dark corners where you can hide. And so I think it’s great. There are a lot of questions remaining about the role of the military, and will the military embrace this freedom, and will it support it, or will it try to stifle it. So far the signs are all quite good.
Anderson: You’ve touched on this in your statement just now, but what do you think about the neighboring nations, some of which have been undergoing some political turmoil themselves? Do you think that this will be a kind of a ripple effect, or what do you predict, if you could be so bold?
Scheer: Well, I think if democracy can really take off in Egypt, it just changes the whole dynamic for the other states—including Israel, by the way. I mean, Israel’s whole defense of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is that it is surrounded by a vast sea of militant Islamic fanatic Arabs, and so forth. Now, of course, the reality is that they’ve been cooperating with Egypt ever since the Six-Day War, and both militaries have been, in substantial ways, underwritten by the United States. But still there’s that whole specter of this massive Arab population and tiny little Israel. If Egypt becomes democratic and rational and reasonable in its politics, and yet pushes for progress on allowing the Palestinians to have their own rights, well, then it’s going to be that much more difficult for Israel to resist.
I think it also puts enormous pressure on the monarchies of the Mideast. They’re just out of joint, particularly the oil ones, but including Syria, and they have to change. It raises the standard for Iraq, you know, because Egypt is the model for the Arab world; there’s no question about it. And if in Egypt reason and logic and education come to rule—and social justice, which is also very much needed, since the average … you know, it’s two dollars a day for most Egyptians to live on. So there has to be some spreading around of wealth; there has to be economic development, if not underwritten by oil and the states that have it, hopefully with some support from outside investment.
But, you know, life is very hard in Egypt, and there were food riots a few years back; most of it is centered around the Nile, and there’s very little that you can do to improve life without development, and that’s really going to be the big issue. And the question is where the army comes down. They’ve got their resources; they’re taken care of. Are they going to get out of the way now and allow true modernization, or are we going to go back to, or continue, this corruption where some Egyptians get very rich and are taken care of, and the rest are ignored?
Anderson: Here’s a question from the Web, and it’s also one of the follow-ups that I would ask as well: “How do you feel about the Muslim Brotherhood—if they become the leaders of Egypt, what will happen?”
Scheer: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the convenient whipping boy forever, as far as I can recall. As I mentioned in my own columns, I was reporting from Egypt at the time of the Six-Day War, and that was the whole justification for rallying around Nasser and his corrupt authoritarian regime. If you don’t go with Nasser, or every other dictator, whether they’re religious or not—and I would point out that most of the monarchs claim to be even more fanatical in religious terms than the Muslim Brotherhood—you’ll get these Muslim fanatics.
And it became a great excuse for oppressing the people, it became a great … and yet they were trying to play that card while the people were in their square. They said, oh, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s not really all these young people; they’re naive, they’re being duped. Well, that’s garbage. And we’re going to have to face up to it that you can be both democratic and Islamic. You know, this has become a … thing in this whole war of terror to say that anytime people who happen to be followers of Muhammad also want democracy, “No, it’s a contradiction.” Why is it a contradiction? We’ve had crazed Christians, we’ve had crazed Jews; it was a Jewish fanatic who killed Rabin in Israel. We’ve had Christians that have waged holy war down through the centuries. Yes, we have crazed Muslims; why do we assume that’s the norm? Why do we assume that’s the majority?
And clearly, the experience in Egypt, where they’re in the midst of protests … you had Christians and Muslims worshipping together, protecting each other, both demanding freedom—and Muslim Brotherhood people there also, demanding freedom. I just think this whole demonization of “the other” in the Mideast is really a cop-out for the existing rulers. You know, “Stick with us even though we’re corrupt and violent and totalitarian, because otherwise you’ll get these religious fanatics.” And it’s … I’d like to challenge that, you know. I don’t think these people deserve a pass because they’re holding back the evil horde, you know. It’s a cop-out.
Anderson: Well, just to push you a little bit on that, if there’s been past precedents—I’m thinking of Poland and other countries that have undergone major upheavals in the last couple of decades where, you know, the promise of democracy and a new type of leadership takes a while to develop, takes a while to test-drive and see if it’s actually going to work there. And in that time certain, perhaps more extreme, types of leaders can rise up and capture the imagination of the people. There is some kind of opening for that here, wouldn’t you think? Or is that grafting another country’s fate onto an irrelevant new topic?
Scheer: I think it’s insulting to people around the world to say that we are the only ones who can make history in a good way. First of all, it was a Christian, advanced Christian country that descended into fascism—Germany. OK? It wasn’t some primitive country. …
Anderson: Well, but to defend myself, I didn’t say that. I asked if there was an opening for …
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