WASHINGTON -- One of the hallmarks of a good journalist, and especially a good foreign correspondent, is to bring to a story every bit of history and background you can beg, steal or borrow. This is particularly important when the story at hand is complicated and deadly. "Parachuting" in on a story without depth of knowledge, as many younger journalists do today, is virtually always a synonym for superficiality.
In those "old days" of journalism, my paper, the Chicago Daily News, had eight to 10 correspondents, all famous, amazingly handsome and storied, who spent most of their lives in one region of the globe. Each was one part journalist, one part scholar, one part intellectual acrobat. Each had his favorite bar in every major city of the world.
Then, in the '80s, the parachutists came in. Correspondents were sent to El Salvador one day, Nicaragua the next, and then Argentina, Egypt, Iran and Vietnam in no discernible order, and with little chance to learn much about any of them. But now, it seems to me, we could apply some of the old style of reporting to today's headlines in the Middle East.
When Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, one of the leaders of the historic Muslim Brotherhood, came back from the Gaza negotiations last week and, without even apparently stopping for prayers, took over total power, we had no right to complain as much as we did about his "perfidy."
How could he DO it? we cried out. Hadn't he promised the Egyptian people -- hadn't he promised us? -- that the Brotherhood would obey secular principles of democracy? Why didn't he WAIT a few days?
I'm afraid we shall have to go back to the old Chicago Daily News style of deeper analysis to discover what is going on.
First, Morsi won the election by fewer than 100,000 votes; but since that was on the basis of only 50 percent voter participation, in truth he received the votes of only a quarter of the total electorate of 54 million eligible voters, and a relatively small number of radical Islamists called the Salafis, who want an international caliphate as in days of yore.
Point: President Morsi does not have any real "mandate," and not any majority by any measure. Therefore, don't be surprised if he takes extreme steps to protect his power.
Second, it would have been -- in fact, in many analyses it was -- a mistake to think, perchance to dream, that the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been outlawed for decades by presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, were suddenly going to turn around and become secular Social Democrats, or some such Western variant, essentially unknown or largely disliked in the Middle East.
In the 80 years the Brotherhood has been an underground political organization, every single government in Egypt has arrested them in huge numbers. Highly respectable sources such as Dr. Cherif Bassiouni, professor emeritus of law at DePaul University in Chicago, judges that approximately 100,000 members of the Brotherhood were rotated through the prison system every year, with 10,000 of those tortured.
Point: "It is impossible to expect from such a group of people that they will suddenly forget everything and act like secular democrats," claims Dr. Bassiouni, now chair of both the Bahrain and Libya commissions investigating recent "Arab Spring" events. "They are committed theocrats. Their beliefs sustained them during those difficult years. They are now in power and they are not about to give it up."
Third, once the Morsi government rid itself of the military that had served the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak regimes (all three men from the military), the only independent power group in Egypt was the judiciary, which was both independent and cooperative with the previous regimes. Had those regimes' military leaders insisted upon remaining in power, the country would probably have descended into all-out civil war.
Point: Only the judiciary is left to challenge the president's acts, and it has begun to do so, but no one knows yet how that will come out. Yet, it is the only power that could stand in the way of the Morsi government's move to turn Egypt into a theocracy -- not so much the caliphate of the Salafis as a confederation.
Meanwhile, many parts of the world, and the West in particular, have been far too heady in their analyses of the "Arab Spring," seeing events in the Arab world in terms of their own words and concepts. Part of this is wishful thinking; part of it is the lack of in-depth knowledge of the Arab world, even of their systems and structures, despite the fact that there is plenty of available information.
Fourth, Egypt is only the first step, just as Russia was merely the first move for the communist Marxists and Leninists. Few understand that the Brotherhood has members in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with its 57 states, as well as in 50 other countries in the world with Muslim communities. This trend can already be seen in the emergence of Muslim Brotherhood as fighters and organizers in Tunisia, Libya and the Syrian resistance.
Point: This is only the beginning.