How’s this for columnist karma: no sooner had we posted my tribute to history’s graceful losers than F.W. de Klerk popped up in New York at the end of an American speaking tour to raise money for a foundation he heads. I spent an hour with him Wednesday at his hotel, discussing the negotiated surrender of white rule in South Africa and the echoes he hears in today’s Middle Eastern tremors.
What de Klerk sees when he looks at Egypt and Tunisia is the kind of wholesale revolution in the streets that would have swept his own country if he had not agreed to sit down with apartheid’s adversaries. Or, to flip it around, he sees spasmodic upheaval that could have been averted if that part of the world had started earlier on fundamental reforms.
“America and the European Union and other leading countries in the world might ask themselves, maybe they should have applied the same pressure that they did on South Africa to some of their friends in the Middle East,” he added with a sly smile. “That could have helped to avoid what is happening now.”
To my list of lessons that the South African experience offers for the erupting Arab world, de Klerk had a few additions. First, sanctions are a crude weapon. He endorses sanctions to stop the current carnage in Libya but warns that isolating a pariah regime can be counterproductive, especially if it drags on for years. De Klerk contends that the sanctions imposed on South Africa — international sports boycotts, prohibitions on investment — were easy for the white rulers to get around, hurt blacks far more than whites and sometimes backfired.
“We circumvented them so successfully,” he said. “When there was an oil embargo, we stored up oil to the extent that when in the early ’80s, when I became minister of mineral and energy affairs, we had enough oil stored … to last four years without a new drop of oil coming into South Africa.”
The international opprobrium had the effect of making the white electorate resentful and inward-looking, he said. “The biggest victory ever in a white election for the National Party was in ’77” when the ardent apartheid champion John Vorster won 80 percent of the seats in Parliament. “His platform was: Who is America to tell us what to do?”
De Klerk says the isolation of sanctions was a major reason that the South African regime acquired a small nuclear arsenal — seven atom bombs, which he later destroyed. “I’m not saying it didn’t keep us on our toes,” he told me.“I’m not saying it wasn’t effective in considering that we should change.” But what ultimately persuaded his party to abandon apartheid was the realization that it was “a failed policy.”
Egypt’s rulers have long understood that they can’t persuade the West that secular reformers pose a danger to Egypt or the world. The Islamists, however, are another story. And while the secularists have been a minor nuisance to the regime (at least until just now), the Brotherhood — well-organized, disciplined, and widely admired — really did constitute a political threat. So the regime and its defenders harp relentlessly on the Brotherhood’s “real” intentions. When I was in Cairo in early 2007, Hossam Badrawi, the man who was just named Secretary-General of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), told me that allowing the Brotherhood to freely run for office would be like legalizing the Nazi party in Germany. Another cautioned that, while the Brothers were not “necessarily” terrorists, they certainly hoped to impose Saudi-style sharia on Egypt.
And it worked. After making a rousing 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo calling on President Hosni Mubarak to open up the political process, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answered a question by saying, “We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, and…we won’t.” Mubarak’s security forces subsequently beat and killed Brotherhood supporters in parliamentary elections, and the White House issued only the mildest protest. George W. Bush’s administration maintained a conspicuous silence as the regime carried out mass arrests of the opposition group’s leaders in 2007.
It’s not only the regime’s apologists who profess to fear the Muslim Brotherhood; I had no trouble finding secular Cairenes who took an equally dim view. The group’s slogan is, after all, “Islam is the solution,” and the appeal its political leaders make to the rank and file is long on religious orthodoxy. Still, I spent two weeks talking to members of the Brotherhood — something the secular critics rarely do — and though I did feel they were putting their best foot forward for a Western journalist, I was struck by their reluctance to impose their views on others and their commitment to democratic process. They had been drawn to the Brotherhood not only by piety but also by the group’s reputation for social service and personal probity.
Many of these men were lawyers, doctors, or engineers. But I also spent several evenings with an electrician named Magdy Ashour, who had been elected to parliament from a dismal slum at the furthest edge of Cairo (he’s now an independent, after being ousted from the Brotherhood in December). He was at pains to counter what he assumed were my preconceptions. “When people hear the name Muslim Brotherhood, they think of terrorism and suicide bombings,” Ashour conceded. “We want to establish the perception of an Islamic group cooperating with other groups, concerned about human rights. We do not want to establish a country like Iran, which thinks that it is ruling with a divine mandate. We want a government based on civil law, with an Islamic source of lawmaking.”
And just what is an “Islamic source of lawmaking?” Muhammad Habib, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide — its second-ranking official— explained to me that, under such a system, parliament would seek the advice of religious scholars on issues touching upon religion, though such views could never be binding. A democratically elected parliament, he asserted, would still have the “absolute right” to pass a law the Brotherhood deemed “un-Islamic.” And the proper redress for religious objections would be a formal appeal process in the constitutional court.
Maybe they were lying. But I didn’t think so. More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood’s then 88-member caucus in the legislature studiously avoided religious issues and worked with secular opposition members on issues of democracy and human rights. They all lived together in a hotel, showed up for work every day, and invited outside experts for policy briefings. It was widely agreed that the Brothers took parliament far more seriously than members of the ruling party ever had.
On Jan. 25, the first day of protests, the organizers from the youth wings of Egypt’s opposition movements created what appeared to be a spontaneous massing of residents of the slum of Bulaq al-Dakrour, on Cairo’s western edge. These demonstrators weren’t, as the popular narrative has held, educated youth who learned about protests on the Internet. They were instead poor residents who filled a maze of muddy, narrow alleyways, massed in front of a neighborhood candy store and caught security forces flatfooted.
That protest was anything but spontaneous. How the organizers pulled it off, when so many past efforts had failed, has had people scratching their heads since.
"We had to find a way to prevent security from making their cordon and stopping us," said 41-year-old architect Basem Kamel, a member of Mohamed ElBaradei’s youth wing and one of the dozen or so plotters.
They met daily for two weeks in the cramped living room of the mother of Ziad al-Alimi.
They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.
The group publicly called for protests at those sites for Jan. 25, a national holiday celebrating the country’s widely reviled police force. They announced the sites of the demonstrations on the Internet and called for protests to begin at each one after prayers at about 2 p.m.
But that wasn’t all.
"The 21st site, no one knew about," Mr. Kamel said.