Sunday, February 6, 2011



A powerful regime, facing a rare moment of vulnerability, is all of a sudden interested in reform and willing to talk. It invites its arch-enemies to the negotiating table. But once the crowds are gone, what guarantee remains that the police state will not regroup and retrench and strike back with a vengeance?

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition over the weekend. What remains unclear is if the Mubarak regime is sincerely extending an open hand of peace to the opposition, or trying to draw them in close enough so they can be slapped or lured into a trap. Is the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood a heartfelt bid to hear all sides or a plan to sow division in a protest that to date has been notable for being leaderless, secular, spontaneous and youthful?

Given the low esteem with which the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed in Israel, Europe and the US, extending an olive branch to the banned, radical opposition might seem paradoxical at first. But it is sometimes easier for entrenched power to deal with its arch-enemy, the enemy that it knows, and not only knows, but probably needs, as an existential doppelganger. On a certain functional level it may be easier for a ruthless power to deal with, if not respect, another ruthless, tightly organized entity, rather than deal with a random mass of peaceful moderates without a hierarchical political organization.

Certainly in other places, at other times, this paradoxical embrace of the opposite can be seen in effect. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US found it easier to work with Japan’s old wartime elite than the communists, pacifists and trade unionists who opposed Tokyo’s war on Asia. In recent decades, Beijing’s rulers have found it easier to engage the Communist Party of China’s arch-enemy represented by the KMT party on Taiwan, rather than deal respectfully with rag-tag individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, and many thousands of others, who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thus, what appears at first glance a gesture of inclusion on the part of the Egyptian regime might in fact be a bid to exclude the moderate core demonstrators and keep the focus on mutually antagonistic extremes instead.