Interview With Dr. Mark Levine

Interview With Dr. Mark Levine

Dr. Mark LeVine is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the university of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming book: Why They Don”t Hate Us. He visited Egypt last summer where he met with several MB leaders and other activists. I had this following interview with Dr. Levine to talk about the crackdown against members of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian government and the US policies in the region.

Ikhwanweb: After your recent trip to Egypt and your meetings with members of the opposition including the MB, what is your assessment of the political atmosphere in Egypt?
Mark Levine: It was a real eye opener. Although I”m no stranger to Egypt, I used to speak of the government and its manner of rule over society in the same terms as Morocco or Jordan. But after meeting with two seeming poles of Egyptian society–religious activists, such as those from the Ikhwan, and musicians and other artists–that I realized how much more repressive the Mubarak government is than its counterparts.

Yet, at the same time I think there is a lot of potential for challenging the government if the various sections of civil society, secular and religious, activists and artists, can come together with enough discipline and solidarity. One thing is for sure, no one group can do it alone, and as long as the Government can keep the society divided, it will assure its continued hold on power.

Ikhwanweb: The government accused the MB of forming “military wing” after several students affiliated with the MB participated in a martial art performance in December wearing masks, which the government used as justification of its current offensive against the group. Do you believe the government’s accusations were substantiated?

Mark Levine: My understanding is that they were not substantiated. On the other hand, as members of the Ikhwan readily admitted to me, it was not a very smart move by the students to use any symbols that could be used by the government to make an accusation of violence against. But of course, these are college students. They”re supposed to go too far, be extreme, piss people off.  Anyway, my five year old son is wears the same outfits when he does martial arts, and he understood what they were trying to do. But clearly there needs to be more coordination so that the government doesn”t get another excuse to crack down like this.

Ikhwanweb: How do you think the MB should react to the government’s crackdown against its members, leaders and economic structure?

Mark Levine: For me, the only morally, politically and intellectually tenable response is active non-violence. this shouldn”t be a problem since the Brotherhood has committed to this option for years. However, non-violence isn”t enough. It”s clear that the Brotherhood is the largest socio-political movement in Egypt. But by itself it isn”t large enough to challenge the existing power structure. It needs to bring the rest of society together. It still needs to achieve what scholars would call “hegemony” over the rest of society, or at least a far larger section, meaning it has to get other groups to see its program as being broad enough to include them. Today, it seems that the Brotherhood is still viewed in a polarized manner. While many people support it, many people, not just secular people but even more religious ones, don”t trust the brotherhood. That”s just a fact whether it”s justified or not. So there needs to be a lot more work on the grass roots level done to reach out to artists, academics, secular and/or liberal forces, who still don”t believe that in the end the Brotherhood wouldn”t persecute or alienate them in some way if it actually achieved political power. This is the most important task I think facing the Brotherhood, at the same time that it continues to press for its own people to be freed or treated justly.

Ikhwanweb: Why is the US silent about government’s undemocratic and oppressive measures against members of the MB?

Mark Levine: the same reason it”s silent everywhere else except when adversarial regimes do the oppressing. Bush and his corporate sponsors and allies couldn”t care less about democracy. In fact, it”s inimical to their goals, which are to keep the region in a permanent state of manageable conflict that keeps the arms flowing and oil prices high but not too hight that people actually change their consumption habits significantly. 

Bush couldn”t bring democracy to the Middle East if he wanted to, and it”s clear that his administration, like those before it, doesn”t want to because there”s too much money to be made with the existing system. I mean, all those billions in military and economic aid to Egypt, who”se actually getting that? US arms and agricultural corporations. Multiply that by fifty countries and you get the picture…

Ikhwanweb: Does the US consider the MB a threat to its interests in the region?

Mark Levine: I can”t speak for the US, but I think it”s context. In Egypt, yes because you”re a threat to the Mubarak regime and power structure. But now there are reports that the US is secretly funding Sunni jihadi groups against Iran, even though they”re tied to al-Qa”eda. So it”s all about the larger picture. It has nothing to do with Islam and everyrhing to do with maintaining the existing order, except where we want to change it (like Iran or Syria). if you want to do that, you”re America”s friend, if you don”t, you”re Bush”s enemy.

Ikhwanweb: Will the current events in Egypt and the clampdown against opposition hurt the US interests in the region in the long run?

Mark Levine: They will, because ultimately the current political and economic order, so supported by the US, will fall or crumble, as it did in Iran. This level of oppression likely can”t continue indefinitely and when the tide changes people will remember what the position of the US government was.  but again, we need to define “US interests”. My interests, for example, are not the same as George Bush”s or Dick Cheney”s. 

The interests of the people of the US are not the same as their government”s, sadly. So what”s “bad” for the government–real democracy and equitable development, for example–could be good for the people, because it would help end the war on terrorism positively for all concerned.

Ikhwanweb: Do you think the US has backed down from its promises to push for democracy in the Middle East?

Mark Levine: Clearly it”s backed down rhetorically, but it never actually pushed that agenda in reality or substance so the impact on the ground isn”t going to be that much. At least people won”t be fooled into thinking that George Bush will help them. It”s up to the people of Egypt, and people at the grass roots every where, to joing together and create alternative networks of power and politics that ultimately can transcend the existing corrupt orders.

Ikhwanweb: Some in the West are skeptical about the MB commitment to Democracy and civil society and accuse the group of merely appeasing the West until they get to power. Do you think the MB is genuine in its pursuit of reform and democracy?

Mark Levine: First of all, I only know a few people [in the MB]although I try to read up on most of the major figures. I”m sure there are some figures who aren”t genuine–but of course that would only make them no different than the existing regime… Most of the younger members I”ve met are clearly very committed to democracy and pluralism, but this is something that has to penetrate both the Egyptian and world public/media sphere more. That”s a major task for the Brotherhood I should think. But you have to tread carefully because as the debacle with the colleges student shows, any mistep will reverberate negatively.