April 7, 2013

David Rohde: Egypt no laughing matter, really

The post-revolutionary political train wreck of an Arab nation has bigger fish to fry than satirists.

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When Morsi's office tweeted in reply that it was "inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda," the embassy shut down its Twitter account without conferring with Washington, according to Foreign Policy. The embassy Twitter account later reappeared, without the offending Stewart tweet.

In Washington, meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated the tweet was "inappropriate." Yet she also bluntly criticized "growing restrictions on the freedom of expression" in Egypt.

The mixed American response confused Egyptians, according to Bohn, the American journalist. In interviews this week, several Egyptians said they don't know what Washington wants.

Emboldened Muslim Brotherhood members, meanwhile, vow to press ahead. In the Youssef case, brotherhood members filed formal legal complaints with prosecutors accusing the comedian of breaking antiquated laws that criminalize insulting Islam or the head of state. They are demanding that prosecutors, who are nominally independent of the government, fully prosecute Youssef.

In a blunt statement on its website, the group dismissed State Department calls for free expression.

"They will have only one interpretation in the Egyptian street," the group predicted, "the U.S. welcomes and defends contempt of religion by the media."

Peter Hessler, in a telling posting for The New Yorker on Thursday, suggested the brotherhood may be right. Hessler described how his Arabic language teacher viewed the dispute. Angered by a wildly inaccurate description of Stewart's monologue in an Egyptian newspaper, the teacher saw Stewart as part of a Jewish conspiracy.

"Do you know who this Jon Stewart is?" the teacher asked Hessler. "He's a Jew, isn't he?"

The teacher also argued, however, that the brotherhood was using the case against Youssef to distract Egyptians from the country's dismal economy.

For now, it's unclear whether the brotherhood is losing the broad support that allowed it to sweep post-revolutionary elections. Public opinion polls show Morsi losing popularity in urban areas and among youth – but retaining strong approval in poor, rural areas.

Brown, the George Washington University professor, argued that the brotherhood is politically vulnerable. He urged fractious opposition groups to reject calls for a boycott of the parliamentary vote, unite and run.

"The opposition has an opportunity here," he said. "They're not going to win the next elections but they could win the ones after that."

A free and fair parliamentary election must be held as soon as possible. The opposition should follow Brown's advice and begin the long, slow process of building political organizations. Washington should declare its $1 billion in promised American aid contingent on democratic elections. And Jon Stewart proteges must not face jail time.

Egypt is awash in conspiracy, distrust and despair. Morsi has miscalculated over and over. So have his opponents. Egypt's best hope is that the resolve their differences at the ballot box – not in court and on the street.

David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

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