The Alexandria Bombing: Useless and Useful Questions

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When Christian worshippers are blown apart by a suicide bomber in Egypt, it is massively significant. This was the first suicide sectarian bombing in Egyptian history. To say that this is simply part of some big dismal tradition in the monolithic Islamic world is to say nothing useful. There may be some general way in which this is true, but to say this sheds about as much light as an appeal to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which also in some way predicts such an event.

The event signifies a change in Egypt—a very sinister one. Yes, there has been sectarian conflict before, but this attack has novel characteristics, and it takes but a moment of reflection to see that some group is seeking to ignite a civil war in Egypt.

Egypt is not Switzerland—it is poor, authoritarian and corrupt—but it is not now a totalitarian state, nor is it implacably hostile to the West. It is basically friendly, as this region goes. Dramatic instability in the most important country in the Arab world would be catastrophic for the West. And obviously, it would be catastrophic for Egyptians, most of whom are Muslims.

I find it shocking that there is so little serious analysis of this bombing in the Western news. The best coverage of this event–by far–that I found was this treatment on Al Jazeera:

If any Western media outlet is doing reporting like this, I haven’t seen it. Why not? Doesn’t a crime of this enormity merit asking these questions?

The questions we should be asking are:

1) Is this connected specifically to attacks on Christians in Iraq?

2) What has been happening in Egyptian society recently to create a ripe environment for such an attack?

3) Have the policies of the Mubarak government (which the United States supports) been kindling these sectarian tensions?

Here are some more questions that strike me as essential. The attack came in the wake of threats by al-Qaeda in Iraq to attack Egypt’s Christians. Al Qaeda in Iraq certainly does have the strategic goal of provoking sectarian violence in Egypt, and as Dr. Alia Brahimi notes in the video above, the nature and sophistication of the attack suggests al Qaeda’s involvement.

But she goes on to make a critically important point about the enabling environment in Egypt. Al Qaeda could not have done this without local assistance. And this is key to an ongoing American policy debate with massive ramifications not just for Egypt, not just for the region, but for the entire globe. Here we come back, again, to the nature and role of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamic political movement in Egypt is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood; it’s not wholly inaccurate to say they’re basically the same thing. To review: The Brotherhood’s presence in Egypt dates from the 1920s. It spawned the entire array of radical political Islamist groups operating today from the Philippines to Northern Virginia. The Global Muslim Brotherhood developed as Muslim Brothers fled Egypt and installed themselves in Europe and the United States. It has struggled for more than 75 years to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. Successive regimes – British, Royal, Nasserite and most recently that of Mubarak – have repressed it ruthlessly.

One of my biggest questions about this bombing is whether it signifies what Barry Rubin predicted last October: a shift in the Brotherhood’s activities from “base-building and propaganda” to “revolutionary activities.”

In October, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Muhammad Badi’, issued a significant policy speech. Rubin understood it as a signal to the movement’s followers:

Some of them will engage in terrorist violence as individuals or forming splinter groups; others will redouble their efforts to seize control of their countries and turn them into safe areas for terrorists and instruments for war on the West.

He made several predictions about what this speech heralded, among them:

1. Increased internal conflict in Egypt, the start of a decade-long struggle for power in the Arabic-speaking world’s most important country. 

2. The likelihood that more Brotherhood supporters in the West will turn to violence and fund-raising for terrorism.

3. The true nature of the radical indoctrination–preparing people for future extremism and terrorism–in the mosques and groups they control.

4. A probable upturn in anti-American terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe.

He may very well be right. This is one reason it’s essential to figure out exactly who was behind the bombing. It has a certain bearing on the question of whether the Brotherhood should be included in the democratic process, wouldn’t you say?

A useful discussion for Americans involves this question: Is the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood from the Egyptian political process a mistake, as Dr. Brahimi is implying? Is it serving only to push political Islam underground, further radicalizing and polarizing Egyptian society? What are the alternatives to its exclusion? What should we be encouraging the Mubarak government to do, given that we do have some influence over it?

These are serious question, worthy of debate, and the debate might actually lead somewhere. “Why aren’t Muslims protesting?” just isn’t worth the time. It’s a completely pointless question, especially given that they are.

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