In the Mishnaic volume called The Ethics of the Fathers," a sage named Ben Zoma asks and answers one of life's mostbasic, most fundamental questions:
"Who is truly wise? The person who can learn from any and everyone." Ben Zoma offers as his proof text a verse from Psalm 119: "From all my teachers have I gained understanding."
Without question, it is a truly powerful gem of wisdom; one which carries just as much weight today as it did more than 2,000 years ago. Come to think of it, perhaps Ben Zoma's insight carries even more weight at a time when so many people seem to be afflicted by the sort of moral and intellectual certitude which pretty much precludes the asking of questions or the ability to learn from the mistakes of others. This is especi ally true for people in public life, who far too often race to enunciate case-hardened positions where true wisdom might dictate a period of thoughtful ambivalence. Case in point: the revolt/coup/political unraveling in Egypt. It is such a monstrously complex situation; one which defies facile statements or self-confidant slogans. Anyone averring certain knowledge as to whi ch is the correct path to take -- for Egypt, for Israel, for America and the West for the rest of the Muslim world -- is little better than a soldier marching off to war armed with nothing but a fistful of marshmallows. There are, of course, questions as to what affect the toppling of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will have on the Syrian civil war. And on the West Bank, Palestinian Authority leaders, overjoyed by Morsi's ouster, are urging residents in Gaza to rise up and likewise topple the Hamas government.
The ousting of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president has been breathtaking in its audacity. The toppling of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has been equally brash an d unpredictable. Less than 3 months ago, a small group sat down at the Borsa Cafe in central Cairo and began discussing how to invigorate Egypt's tired civil opposition. Their complaints against President Morsi were legion; a torpid economy, high unemployment, high prices for such staples as food and energy, and an administration that was just as corrupt, autocratic, insular and inefficient as that of Hosni Mubarak. What also bothered this small group -- and much of the nation -- were the false pretenses under which Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had run in the election. While they had promised to focus on jobs and the economy, instead, once in office, they spent the lion's share of their first year in power expanding, extending and consolidating a stridently religious, anti-Western agenda. Through the implementation of an increasingly rigorous moral code, the Brotherhood essentially killed off the nation's tourist industry -- as vital to the Egyptian economy as is oil to Iran. These were some of the issues the five young men at the Borsa Cafe sought to address . . . and to do something about.
Using Smartphones, Facebook and other forms of social media as their organizing tools, the group -- now named Tamarod (Rebel) -- was able to gather more than 22 million signatures on petitions calling for Morsi's ouster. Think about it: 22 million signatures in a nation of just over 80 million; that works out to one-in-four Egyptians -- the equivalent of more than 75 million Americans . . . and all this, in less than 3 months time. The Tamarod movement spread like wildfire until, less than a week ago, the military stepped in, put Morsi and much of his administration under house arrest, and named former Constitutional Court Chief Judge Adli Mansour Interim President. (It should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood's "IkhwanOnline" website ran an article which stated that Mansour is "considered to be a Seventh Day Adventist, which is a Jewish sect." Moreover, the authors of the piece claimed that the Pope of Egypt's Coptic church had refused to convert Mansour to Christianity, and that his appointment was backed by Israel and the U.S. as part of a plan to eventually install former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBardei as president. The post has since been taken down.)
Many outside of Egypt cheer these events and say "good riddance." Others correctly remind us that regardless of what one thinks about Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian people did freely elect them. And that to believe in democracy is to also believe that people have the right to make their own mistakes, to elect their own pernicious fools , and to suffer the consequences of their own crummy choices. Some, like Arizona Senator John McCain, argue that the Egyptian military has staged a coup, which means that the United States is now legally obliged to cut off all non-humanitarian aid. "Coup be damned," others argue, "give 'em the money"; the annual $1.3 billion we give in military aid helps insure the continued peace between Israel and Egypt . . . and besides, the lion's share of this year's aid has already been sent and spent. Without question, this is not a black-and-white situation.
In keep with our opening quote from Ben Zoma, there is much to be learned from Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood. One group that would be wise to learn from them, their world view and their failure and t heir fate, is the Tea Party, for in several respects, they are not all that dissimilar. Both groups achieved political success by tapping in to popular discontent: the Muslim Brotherhood and the people's hatred of the autocratic Murbarak; the Tea Party and what they referred to as the "left-wing socialistic" Obama Administration. The Muslim Brotherhood keyed in on the precarious state of the Egyptian economy under Mubarak, and promised that this would be their top priority. Likewise, the Tea Party pilloried the Obama Administration for failing to corral the nation's high unemployment, and saddling the nation with crippling debt. Addressing these issues -- as well as creating "jobs, jobs, jobs" -- would, along with repealing Obamacare, be their top priority. And, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which took over the reins of government in 2011, the Tea Party managed to score an upset victory in 2010, capturing the House of Representatives as well as governorships and super-majorities in many state legislatures.
Then too, like Morsi and the Brotherhood, the Tea Party has largely ignored or forgotten the platform on which they ran; instead of creating jobs and attending to the economy, they have spent the lion's share of their time and effort on so-called "values" issues like abortion, marriage and the defense of families; on privatizing education, prisons and roadways; on emasculating labor unions and reviving Jim Crow laws for the 21st century. Time and again, they have proven themselves to be anti-science, disparaging towards academia, and desirous of a return to some ideal past. To a great extent, their efforts, like those of the Brotherhood, have been fueled by a moral vision that is both sectarian and extremely narrow; one which is likely not shared by a majority of the public. And like the Brotherhood, much of the Tea Party finds conspiracy theories far too tantalizing to pass up . . .
We are not suggesting that Americans are going to be flocking by the tens of millions to the Ellipse -- or Times Square, Fountain Square or Pershing Square -- to protest these narrow-minded moralists any time soon. Our mini-revolutions and coups occur at the polling place, not in the public square. Although we are a violent, well-armed people, our sense of outrage is far tamer, far more constrained than that of the Egyptians; our Tea Party need not fear house arrest, banishment, exile or worse. Likewise, the public need not fear armed insurrection. Nonetheless, the Tea Party should learn from the Muslim Brotherhood that those who seek to reshape society in their own sectarian image are doomed to ultimately fail.
For they are not, when all is said and done, terribly wise -- they have failed to grasp a truism which though first stated more than 2,000 years ago, is as fresh and as vital as the day after tomorrow.
-2013 Kurt F. Stone