Washington Institute for Near East Policy invited senior Muslim Brotherhood official Helmy el-Gazzar to its annual conference in the US, booked him on a business class flight from Cairo, and put him up in the luxurious Ritz Carlton. El-Gazzar made it to Washington and checked into his room, but he refused to show up at the conference.
Why? Because Israelis—or “Zionists” as he called them—were also going to be there.
“We have just seen the most famous empty chair since Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention,” Robert Satloff, the institute’s director, told the Washington Free Beacon.
That’s how it goes when you engage with the Muslim Brotherhood.
I’m tempted to say engaging these people is pointless, but it’s not. You learn things by doing it. I’ve had the pleasure three times myself and learned all sorts of things that innoculated me against the tsunami of nonsense written about the Brothers in the naïve heyday of the Arab Spring.
The first time was in Cairo in 2005 when Hosni Mubarak was still doing his thing. I spoke to Esam El-Erian who was a senior spokesman at the time. I wanted to know how the Brotherhood would govern if they ever managed to unseat Mubarak.
He refused to answer even the simplest questions.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt,” I said, “would you cooperate with the West against Al-Qaeda?”
“From the first moment we are against Al-Qaeda,” he said. “We condemn all violent activities. We condemned it then. But he have doubts about the way the West fights terrorism. This way of fighting is the wrong way. We need a concrete definition of terrorism before we can cooperate.”
“What’s your definition of terrorism?” I said.
“We need an international meeting and conference to decide on a definition.”
“Good idea,” I said. “So if you attended an international conference, what definition of terrorism would you suggest?”
“I am not going to give you a definition,” he said. “We need dialogue and consensus. It is not only for the Muslim Brotherhood to decide.”
“But what would you say to Western governments if they agreed to a dialogue with you? What is your definition of terrorism? Nevermind what anyone else thinks.”
“I cannot give you an answer now,” he said.
I also asked if the Brotherhood would ban alcohol. I asked if the Brotherhood would ban books. I asked if the Brotherhood would force women to wear headscarves in public like the Iranian government does.
He wouldn’t answer any of those questions either.
“You must understand,” he said. “We are outlawed. We can clarify these points after we are free.”
“Why don’t you clarify now?” I said.
“We need fresh air,” he said. “We need fresh air before we can clarify this.”
You don’t have to be a political Einstein to figure out what he was doing.
I knew a lot less about the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 than I know now, but that little discussion answered all kinds of questions I had about the organization despite the fact that El-Erian refused to answer my questions.
A few years later I met some Muslim Brotherhood officials in Lebanon. They’re an irrelevant fringe party there. Even among Sunni Muslims they are no more popular than the Green Party is in the United States, but I had the chance to meet with them, so I figured, why not?
They were a little more reasonable than El-Erian. They answered my questions, at least. But some of their answers were barking mad, frankly, and they hinted at what was to come with my third encounter with the Brotherhood in Cairo in 2011.
For instance, when I asked about the possibility of the United States preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, this was the answer I got: “It’s quite a shame that the United States gave the Israeli military 3000 tons of ammunition, chemical and biological, to experiment on the innocent civilians in Gaza.”
How many things are wrong with that sentence? The United States doesn’t give Israel ammunition. If the United States did give Israel ammunition, we would not give the Israelis chemical or biological munitions. Neither the United States nor Israel uses chemical or biological weapons on anybody. Neither the United States nor Israel kills anybody anywhere in the world with any sort of weapon in experiments that would constitute serious war crimes were they carried out.
This guy doesn’t have the first clue about what in the hell’s going on in the world. Not the first clue. His universe is an ideological paranoid fantasy realm hatched in his own mind and the minds of others just like him. He’s harmless because he’s powerless, but his Egyptian counterparts are currently ruling the biggest Arab state in the world. And they’re no less crazy than he is. They’re crazier, actually. And by crazy I mean bug-eyed and wild-of-hair as well as of mind.
The most bizarre interview I have ever conducted in my life was with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo two summers ago, again with Esam El-Erian. My colleague Armin Rosen and I met him in his office.
Maybe he had gastric distress. Perhaps his boss yelled at him five minutes before Armin and I walked in there. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, this time he was completely undisciplined. He was raw and uncorked and he told me exactly how he really felt about things.
I’m going to quote him at length so you’ll get an idea of what engagement with these people is actually like.
Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It’s a big game. You cannot convince me that the American administration is sticking to American values. Qaddafi is your man.
MJT: He’s our man?
Esam El-Erian: Yes.
MJT: Now, wait a minute.
Esam El-Erian: Yes.
Armin Rosen: He bombed a disco full of Americans.
MJT: He has been an anti-American dictator since the day he took power.
Esam El-Erian: French people are now having secret talks with Qaddafi and his son. [Laughs.]
MJT: We are not French.
Esam El-Erian: You neglected everything about Qaddafi when he declared that he’d get rid of so-called nuclear weapons. You neglected to think about him killing people and destroying his country. Your administration neglected everything. So how can I understand that Qaddafi was behind the attack over Lockerbie, Scotland? El Megrahi [the supposed mastermind of the attack] is still living in Libya and is a very big symbol of the hypocrisy of the West. All the West.
MJT: I want to back up for a second. You said that Qaddafi is our man because we restored relations with Libya. Is that all it takes for a dictator to be “our man”? That we have diplomatic relations?
Esam El-Erian: Sir. Who protected Qaddafi’s military coup d’etat? Who protected him? You had all this military power. You could have stopped him.
MJT: What would you like American foreign policy to look like?
Esam El-Erian: Of course, that is up to Americans. You should advise them. I cannot advise them. You in the media play a very important role.
MJT: A little role.
Esam El-Erian: The media and think tanks play a very important role. You created a ghost, a monster, this terrorism. You magnify terrorism, and we face its vengeance. You in the media link every Arab, every Muslim, to terrorists. We were pushed to take off our shoes in your airports.
MJT: I have to take off my shoes, too.
Esam El-Erian: Why?
MJT: I don’t like it either.
Esam El-Erian: You make people live in terror.
MJT: Who does?
Esam El-Erian: You do. The media.
MJT: Who is living in terror?
Esam El-Erian: Your politicians. Your media. Your media.
MJT: We don’t live in terror. I don’t know a single person in the media who lives in terror.
Esam El-Erian: Can you answer one question? Why don’t we hear about trials for September 11?
MJT: Because the people who did it are dead. They killed themselves in the towers.
Armin Rosen: There was a civilian trial.
Esam El-Erian: Four thousand innocent people were killed, and there has been no trial.
MJT: That’s because the people who did it are dead.
Esam El-Erian: Nobody was put in a cage to face a trial.
MJT: They were on the planes. They blew themselves up in the towers.
Esam El-Erian: No. Who was behind it?
MJT: Osama bin Laden. And we just killed him, too.
Esam El-Erian: We know you have about 600 people in Guantanamo Bay. None of them have faced trials. Why? This is a very big mystery.
MJT: Well, what do you think happened? What’s your theory?
Esam El-Erian: And another 4,000 Americans were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You have almost 10,000 innocent Americans killed. Never mind the millions killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. You never put anyone on trial. Who is behind all this? Who made the conspiracy? Is Osama bin Laden alone? Who is behind Osama bin Laden?
Armin Rosen: Who do you think is behind Osama bin Laden?
Esam El-Erian: I want to know!
MJT: What’s your theory?
Esam El-Erian: You have the documents now that Osama bin Laden is dead.
MJT: What’s your theory?
Esam El-Erian: I don’t know.
MJT: You have a theory.
Esam El-Erian: I want to know. That is the question.
MJT: Everybody has a theory. What’s yours?
Esam El-Erian: Why 10,000 Americans killed? Why? Without any investigation.
MJT: Why does it have to be a conspiracy? It really isn’t that complicated.
Esam El-Erian: Is Osama bin Laden alone, or is somebody with him?
MJT: Why does anyone have to be behind Osama bin Laden?
Esam El-Erian: This must be investigated in America! There is this case in the U.K. about hacked telephones. 160 news people were fired.
MJT: [Laughs.] That has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.
Esam El-Erian: A very old newspaper was closed. There was no drop of blood. If 10,000 Americans don’t expect to have a full investigation about the killings in New York, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we want to know.
MJT: Look, it really isn’t that complicated. Osama bin Laden had some support in Saudi Arabia and from Pakistan’s ISI.
Esam El-Erian: Look, sir. It is not enough that Osama bin Laden admitted in public that he did it. Osama bin Laden can’t do it alone.
MJT: He had some support in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Esam El-Erian: If you’re saying Saddam Hussein supported him, it’s a lie. Colin Powell said Saddam Hussein had biological weapons, but this was a lie. Colin Powell now regrets this.
We want to know.
MJT: What is it that you don’t know?
Esam El-Erian: You tell me.
MJT: This isn’t complicated.
Esam El-Erian: Yes, it’s complicated. I agree!
MJT: No. It’s not complicated.
Esam El-Erian: I am a physician. If a lady comes to me and suffers from any complaint, I will investigate. A complicated case must be fully investigated.
It has been ten years. When will Americans will know the truth about who killed 10,000 people?
MJT: The American people are satisfied that we know who did it.
Esam El-Erian: No.
MJT: Yes, we are.
Esam El-Erian: No.
MJT: You aren’t, but we are.
Esam El-Erian: The people cannot forget. The victims and their families will face everyone who keeps silent and protects the real people who were behind this and have drawn a curtain over the truth.
MJT: Who do you think did it? You think the United States government did it?
Esam El-Erian: The American people faced Joe McCarthy. And there were the Chinese people after the Cultural Revolution.
MJT: Are you suggesting the United States government was behind 9/11?
Esam El-Erian: Nobody knows! I don’t know.
Armin Rosen: Let me suggest…
Esam El-Erian: You are very naïve people.
MJT: I’m not naïve. I do this for a living.
Esam El-Erian: So Osama bin Laden admits he’s the murderer. You gave him 25 million dollars, then you killed him, so fine, now the file is closed. For me, it is not closed.
Most dictators who look crazy actually aren’t. Moammar Qaddafi looked crazier than just about anyone, but I don’t think he was. For him it was all just theatrics.
But these Muslim Brotherhood people are unhinged for real. I can tell. I can tell by their body language, their facial expressions, and their tones of voice when they speak to me. They’re not at all like cynical politicians who lie for a living and don’t believe what they say. No, these Muslim Brotherhood people look and sound exactly like the crazy man at the bus stop.
They’re in power in Egypt at a time when the economy, an emergency room case to begin with, is experiencing a catastrophic collapse, but they have no idea what in the hell’s going on. The way they see it, everything—everything—is the fault of a diabolical Jewish and American conspiracy. If you can’t correctly diagnose the source of a problem, you won’t be able to fix it. You’ll lash out at ghosts until the floor collapses and the roof caves in on your head.
One of two things is going to happen. Either the Muslim Brotherhood is going to change (a spectacularly unlikely event any time soon) or, just as the communists did, they’ll ruin every country foolish enough to put them in power. I guarantee it.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Empty Chair