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The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations Hardcover – January 12, 2010

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A Q&A with Author Lee Smith

Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, discusses the ongoing protests in Egypt--from the causes to the implications for Egypt, the Middle East, and the United States

Q: What is happening on the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities?
A: In the wake of the Tunisian uprising that brought down president-for-life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptians took to the streets to protest against their own regime. While the protesters have numerous grievances—a need for higher pay, more jobs, cheaper food, more freedom of speech, a freer political system—their chief demand was for Hosni Mubarak to step down after ruling Egypt for nearly thirty years. Now that Mubarak has done so, it’s important to note that the end result is less a product of a democratic revolution than a military coup. Mubarak, a former air force pilot and a hero of Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, was the public face of the Egyptian army, which gets $1.3 billion in military aid annually from the United States (close to another billion goes to Egypt as financial aid.) Once the military decided it could no longer count on Mubarak to protect its interests, it took outright control of the country and compelled Mubarak to resign.

Q: Why is Egypt’s military so important?
A: In spite of the trappings of a bicameral parliament, a judicial system and even a multiparty system, Egypt’s government is nothing but a military regime. Indeed throughout its many thousand years of history, the country has been ruled by military leaders more often than not—from Alexander the Great to Saladin up through Mohamed Ali, whose dynasty was finally overthrown in 1952 with the military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers to power. The Free Officers were a cadre of young military men headed by Nasser, and upon his death in 1970 a fellow Free Officer, Nasser’s vice president Anwar Sadat, succeeded him. Sadat’s 1981 assassination at the hands of Islamist militants brought Mubarak, a former air force commander, to power, thus ensuring the continued importance of the Egyptian military. Mubarak’s chosen successor, Omar Suleiman, is also a former military man and head of Egyptian intelligence; the newly named Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also comes from the military, another former member of the air force. The strange irony is that even as the Egyptian military is among the country’s most highly respected institutions, respected even by the protesters, it is also deeply corrupt—its senior officers are handsomely rewarded to ensure their loyalty to the regime.

Q: Why is Egypt important to the United States?
A: Egypt is the largest Arab state, with some 80 million inhabitants and climbing. Long the cultural, intellectual, and media capital of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, Cairo sets many of the region’s intellectual and cultural trends. This alone would be enough to make it an important Middle Eastern ally. But Egypt has also been a political leader. For three decades (from 1948 to 1973) it was on the front lines in the fight against Israel, but when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, he took Egypt out of the war and calmed a region of vital national interest to the United States. The peace treaty is the cornerstone of what many refer to as the Pax Americana in the Eastern Mediterranean, and also the pillar of American influence in the entire Middle East.

Q: Why was Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt a key American ally?
A: Until 9/11, Mubarak’s primary importance to Washington was that he kept the peace with Israel. However, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mubarak has been one of the U.S.’s chief, albeit quiet, allies in the war on terror. Mubarak himself fought what was effectively a civil war against domestic Islamist groups throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and accordingly shares an interest with the U.S. in quelling Islamist militants throughout the region.

Q: Were all Egyptians opposed to Mubarak? A: No, and many Egyptians actually opposed the protesters. Some Egyptians believe that the recent unrest was a foreign plot, initiated by the United States or Israel, to destabilize Egypt. The tourist industry—one of the country’s top revenue earners, with Egyptian employees numbering in the thousands, if not millions—has already taken a substantial hit. Some experts believe it will take years for it to recover. Indeed, unemployment is high in Egypt and many of those who do have jobs earn money on a per diem basis—from cab drivers to construction workers. Their livelihoods have obviously been hurt over the last two weeks. And even among those Egyptians who are happy that Mubarak has retired, there are many who would like to see life get back to normal so they can get back to earning a living.

Q: What is Egypt’s relationship to its neighbor Israel?
A: Since Sadat signed the 1979 treaty with Israel, the peace between the two countries has been cold. While Israeli tourists visit Egypt—predominantly beachside resorts in the Sinai and to a lesser extent Cairo—Egyptians rarely make their way to Israel. There is a very strong security relationship between the two countries—both fear Hamas, the Palestinian outfit that the U.S. State Department labels a terrorist organization—as well as relatively strong diplomatic ties. It’s a cold peace, to be sure, but preferable to war.

Q: Who is in the Egyptian opposition?
A: The opposition right now seems to be composed of the young political activists who initiated the protests, largely through social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. For a time, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was also part of the opposition, but since he has very little support inside Egypt itself, he seems to have been passed over. The most organized part of the opposition, although probably not the largest, is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Q: What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization that has been consistently opposed to the country’s secular leadership, including Mubarak. In its earliest years, the Muslim Brotherhood used terror against its opponents, killing many including government ministers. After Nasser incarcerated thousands of its members in the 1950s and 1960s, and executed some of its leadership—like the famous writer Sayyid Qutb—the outfit publicly renounced violence. While the party is still officially illegal, today its members serve in Parliament, but not under the party’s name. Even as the Brotherhood has renounced violence, its critics inside and outside Egypt fear that an Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood would come to look something like Iran’s Islamic Republic, or fundamentalist Saudi Arabia; invariably a Brotherhood-governed Egypt would make good on its promise to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s history of anti-American rhetoric suggests that it would be hostile toward U.S. interests throughout the Middle East.

Q: What is the connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda?
A: As the oldest and most influential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood can rightly be said to be the progenitor of Al Qaeda. The difference of course is that it has renounced violence while Al Qaeda is an armed organization. Moreover, there are a number of ideological differences between the two groups as they compete for support in their activities; yet they both share hostility toward the American presence in the Middle East, and enmity toward Washington’s chief regional ally, Israel.

Q: Is Egypt ready for democracy?
A: While the Egyptian uprising has often been described as prodemocratic, the evidence is mixed. (Among other things, no liberal or democratic leaders have stepped up in the last two weeks.) Egypt has a long tradition of liberal intellectuals and activists, dating back to the nineteenth century. However, in the last half century or so that democratic current has largely been thwarted, partly through the efforts of Egypt’s rulers—from Nasser to Mubarak—and those of the Islamists. There are still liberal intellectuals and activists in Egypt, but they have very small popular constituencies right now, and hence very little power. Perhaps the uprising will give rise to liberal centers of power in Egypt’s political system, but it is still too early to tell.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Smith, Middle East correspondent for the Weekly Standard, argues that it was tensions within the Middle East—not a clash of civilizations, American policies in the region or the creation of Israel—that prompted the attacks on September 11. He writes, In believing that 300 million Arabs had really lined up as one against America, we had been taken in by a mirage, and he takes to task Edward Said and others he feels homogenize Arabs into a monolithic group. In the book's strongest sections, Smith looks at continuities from the pre-Islamic Arab world to the present to trace mores and differences that seep into the modern day, adding a fascinating historical angle. While he undermines his argument with a penchant for proclaiming the condition of the region to be immutable (In the Middle East, political violence is not an anomaly. It is the normal state of affairs), he should be lauded for his commitment and careful research. The book is compelling, well written and worth a read even—or perhaps especially—by those who would disagree with the author. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385516118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385516112
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #271,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

LEE SMITH is a Middle East correspondent for The Weekly Standard. He has written for Slate, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and a variety of Arab media outlets. He is also a visiting fellow of the Hudson Institute. A native of New York, he lives in Beirut.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

87 of 92 people found the following review helpful By Hussain Abdul-Hussain on January 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Not only is this book informative, but is also one of the most easy-read entertaining books. It collects tidbits from several sources, including an interview with Edward Said in 2003, an interview with Eliot Abrams in 2008, and other substantiating material such as quotes from Said's writings or literature by other authors.
Smith's book is not a textbook per se. It is an attempt at understanding what goes on the mind of the people who are from the Middle East, or those who have written or helped shape policies about the Middle East. In some parts, Smith talks to average Joe Arabs. In other parts, he analyzes French foreign policy on the Middle East and what made former French President Jacques Chirac take an unexpected stance in siding with the United States on Lebanon in 2004.
Still, the most interesting dimension of this book is its theme: While the West and America have certainly contributed to shaping history and events in the Middle East, this history has been largely the making of Middle Easterners - a hypothesis that supporters of Arab nationalism, such as Said, disagree with.
Early in his book, Smith cites a few of the inter-Arab "brotherly" confrontations, where he identifies the role of the United States and the West as being somehow secondary: Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Syrian occupation of Lebanon (1990-2005), the civil wars in North Yemen (1962-1970) and Lebanon (1975-1990), the massacres of Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds in 1991, and the massacres of Hafez Assad against the Syrians of Hama in 1982.
The Strong Horse, a coin phrased by none other than Osama Ben Laden, is a great read. It is worth your money.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on February 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As someone who has lived in the Middle East for over thirty- five years and followed its daily events I can attest to the truth of this book's fundamental thesis: i.e. It is not American foreign - policy which is responsible for the endless conflicts in the region, but rather its own historical cultural and political heritage. The tradition of the few ruling the many, of the strong ruler who manipulates the mass in order to stay in power, of the most violent and powerful being the ones admired and followed, is still in place. It is the strong horse not the weak which the great majority of the people in this region admire. Smith details the situation in the respective Arab countries and shows how they are simply not ready for the kind of democratic revolution the West, and primarily the United States would bring to them. Smith is as I understand it, calling for a more modest and realistic American foreign policy, one which in taking into account the inherent problematic character of the region does not entangle itself unduly in impossible tasks which can only lead to disappointment and disillusion.
This work is painful but realistic wake- up medicine for idealistic dreamers (Who in some cases consider themselves political 'realists') but really do not understand what the region is about.
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65 of 73 people found the following review helpful By B. Gilad on February 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Strong Horse is a unique book, with an amazing perspective. That alone makes it a jewel in this field where most other books are simplistic analyses of how the "the Western colonial powers" are to blame for everything that is wrong with the Arab culture, politics and use of terror. Compare this book with "The Arabs- A history" a recent book by Eugene Rogan from Oxford University, which typifies the romantic, guilt-ridden, British-naive view of the Middle East as a problem caused by horrible Western intervention. While Rogan's book is read like a piece of anti-Israeli/Anti-American propoganda devoid of any insight, Smith's book sheds a new and surprising light on the real root cause of this monumental war between the civilizations. The most insightful book in years, Smith says it all in the following: They hate us not becasue of who we are or what we do (a common misconception of well wishing liberals) but becasue of who we are NOT - Arabs. As anyone who grew up in Israel knows, Arabs only respect strength and despise weakness. Any sign of the other side weakening brings immediate violence from Arabs who believe deeper than any Westerner can ever understand that the world is about storng horses fighting. That ingrained attitude, cultivated in Arab boys since birth and dating thousand of years into Arab tribal history, makes a policy of appeasement a grave mistake. One wonders if Obama will ever read this book...
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By N on November 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lee Smith's 'The Strong Horse' dismantles many of the false assumptions about the Middle East commonly held by scholars and observers of the region in the West. Most people have a difficult time understanding that not everyone is 'just like us', or holds the same values and ideals as do the citizens of Western democracies. The book's basic thesis should not be controversial: it is that human culture and belief matters, and that Arab political culture, unlike ours in the West, is and always has been violent. For readers used to thinking of the region as inhabited homogeneously by "Arabs", this book will help to break down that myth and demonstrate how Middle Eastern regimes are divided amongst themselves, and how they employ violence to advance their political ends.

But this book also suffers from a number of serious flaws. Firstly, it lacks a truly coherent structure. Smith interweaves accounts of his personal experiences with historic material, contemporary politics, political analysis, and cultural commentary, and reaches conclusions by drawing on all these sources. Although this makes the book somewhat 'lighter' than an academic text, it can also make it difficult to follow and relate back to the book's thesis. The second issue is related to the first: this book resembles more a work of journalism than an academic text. This is not entirely surprising given Smith's background as a journalist, nor is it necessarily a weakness in itself. Footnotes are used very sparingly to support what is, in the academic world at least, a controversial thesis. In light of this it would have been a good idea to devote more time to making the book more academically robust.
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