So, let's say that you are very interested in the unfolding drama of political changes in Egypt. The logical thing to do is to try to find out who is who and which political/religious party is saying what, correct? So you come across an A1 story that is built on what journalists like to call a hot "get," an exclusive interview with a political player in which this person makes blunt and at times shocking statements.
Hopefully, the story will contain information that adds clarity to a complex drama. But that's the problem with Egypt, right now. The views of the players are so complex that they are hard to address or label in the context of American life and thought.
So let's say you are reading a story in which one of the leaders a powerful Egyptian party states, on the record, that:
* The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were “made in the USA" and a result of the usual cooperation between "the CIA, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service" and, using an old phrase from mid-20th century American history, the "military-industrial complex." It helps, of course, to know that Osama bin Laden was "an American agent."
* The Nazis didn't kill 6 million Jews. One of the key quotes states: "The Holocaust is a lie. ... The Jews under German occupation were 2.4 million. So if they were all exterminated, where does the remaining 3.6 million come from?”
* And, on a related topic, that famous book called “The Diary of Anne Frank"? It's a fake.
So, who said this and where did this story appear? That's going to be the confusing part, for readers who have been consuming most of the mainstream news coverage of recent events in Egypt. These quotes are from a Washington Times "get" with Ahmed Ezz El-Arab, a vice chairman of Egypt's Wafd Party, during last week's Conference on Democracy and Human Rights, held in Budapest.
This means that Ezz El-Arab is a leader on the "secular," and thus "liberal," side of the Egyptian political scene. He's one of the good guys, in most media coverage these days.
This is a very, very confusing story and that is probably a good thing. The Times team elects to present his words in a very straightforward, unvarnished fashion (with audio links online).
So why are they confusing? I think they are interesting and confusing because they are so hard to label. Read this passage and try to assign a simple label to what this man has to say:
Mr. Ezz El-Arab said he accepted that the Nazis killed “hundreds of thousands” of Jews. “But gas chambers and skinning them alive and all this? Fanciful stories,” he added.
Mr. Ezz El-Arab also attacked the authenticity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which he said he studied as a doctoral student in Stockholm. “I could swear to God it’s a fake,” the Wafd leader said. “The girl was there, but the memoirs are a fake.”
And there's much more where that came from. For example, who do his views differ from those trumpeted by the leader of Iran? Might some of these issues affect Egypt's peace treaty with Israel? Might it be tossed out by a new Egyptian government?
... Mr. Ezz El-Arab, who chairs Wafd’s foreign-relations committee, said there is “no chance at all” that would happen. “Egypt will not go to war unless it’s attacked,” he said.
As for Iran, with whom Egypt is normalizing relations, Mr. Ezz El-Arab assailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also has denied the Holocaust.
“He’s a hateful character, so whatever he says can be criticized,” the Wafd leader said. “What he says about the Holocaust is true, but he doesn’t say it because it’s true. He says it out of hatred to the Israeli state.”
These are the kinds of words that tend to get Americans enraged. But are they "liberal," or "fundamentalist"? Are they signs of hope for democracy in Egypt or are they evidence that majority rule may have a dark side in that tense land?
Believe it or not, the story includes additional information that -- if anything -- adds more confusion. Once again, I think that this is a good thing. You see, this secular party is now aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, or, at least, part of it.
Established in 1919 and disbanded in 1952, the Wafd Party was refounded in 1983 under reforms instituted by then-President Hosni Mubarak to allow token opposition to his dominant National Democratic Party. After Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in February, Wafd emerged as arguably the second-most powerful political party to the Muslim Brotherhood, a formerly banned Islamist group.
Last month, Wafd announced it would run jointly with the Brotherhood and 16 other blocs in September’s parliamentary elections to present a united front as Egypt forges a new government.
“For four years, in alliance, we can build a constitution based on certain principles that guarantee human rights, citizenship, no religious trend whatsoever,” Mr. Ezz El-Arab said. “Once this is established, everybody can go to the ballot box and try his luck.”
Do "human rights" include religious liberty for minorities? The end to blasphemy laws? The ability for Egyptians to convert from one religion to another without threats on their lives? Perhaps that is part of the "no religious trends whatsoever" language?
That sounds rather "liberal," doesn't it? Or is this what "secular" sounds like, in Egypt? In the context of Egypt, is Holocaust denial so common that it is neither "liberal" or "conservative," "secular" or "Islamist"?
And what are readers to make of these two paragraphs? Label them, please.
Mr. Ezz El-Arab spoke of “the intelligent American elite that is ruling” and said it had responded to the “disaster” of President George W. Bush by electing Barack Obama president: “Obama is a nice face that has been brought up, the black rabbit taken out of the American hat when it was needed.”
Mr. Ezz El-Arab also claimed that, during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “American soldiers with double Israeli nationality and Jewish religion” stole Jewish antiquities from the Babylonian exile period and had them reburied in Jerusalem to cement the Jewish historical claim on the city.
Confused? Maybe that's a good thing.
IMAGE: The logo of the secular Wafd Party.