Thomas Friedman in Cairo: A fact-check

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is enormously influential, with a cabinet full of Pulitzer prizes, so it's important to set the record straight when he gets some facts wrong.

By , Staff writer

Thomas Friedman is a prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, who travels the world meeting influential people and sharing his thoughts about global progress. Because Mr. Friedman is enormously influential, with a cabinet full of Pulitzer prizes, it's important to set the record straight when he gets some facts wrong – as he did in a speech Monday at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Reading Al Ahram's and The Daily News Egypt's accounts of the event, I found three apparent errors of fact made by the columnist.

1. Partially explaining the success of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in recent Egyptian parliamentary elections, Mr. Friedman said: "The Muslim Brotherhood is legitimate, authentic, progressive alternative. Only faced by the four-month old liberals, they had to win." Al Ahram's English edition quoted him as saying Egypt's "liberal parties ... are only four months old."

Recommended: 5 good books about Egypt

Four-month-old liberals? Friedman's point was that the Brotherhood has been around for over 80 years, and was therefore better prepared than secular opponents for Egypt's fairest elections in at least a generation. But this doesn't track the actual history. 

While many new parties have sprung up since the Tahrir protests last year, a number of Egyptian liberal parties have been around as long or longer than the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. The Wafd Party, which appears to have come in third in the election, was founded in the early 20th century, and was reformed in the early 70s. The Tagammu Party, another secular group with socialist roots, also ran in the recent elections and was formed in the 70s.

2. Asked about "the future of Egypt’s free-market economy under an Islamist-led government," Friedman answered, in the words of Al Ahram, that "Islamists would eventually be forced to adapt to 'modernity.' He pointed out that the relatively lenient positions adopted by Islamist parties on certain controversial issues – like the regulations governing Egypt’s tourism industry – represented a clear indication of this trend."

His view that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate their positions as they're finally faced with the task of governing isn't an unusual one. But the way he responded to the specific question suggests that he doesn't know that, on economics, the Muslim Brotherhood are basically free-market capitalists. He appears to think they have some kind of "pre-modern" thinking about economics.

3. According to Al Ahram, "Friedman went on to draw a comparison between the Egyptian and Indonesian models. In the latter case, Islamist parties swept democratically-held elections in the 1990s, but soon lost ground after failing to meet voters' expectations."

Islamist parties did not win an Indonesian election in the 1990s, or since. Under Suharto, the Islamist United Development Party (PPP) was one of three legally allowed parties, but the elections were rigged in favor of his secular Golkar Party. In the first post-Suharto election of 1999, Islamist parties finished well behind secular parties. They have not come close to winning an election since and had their worst showing of the post-Suharto era in the most recent parliamentary election, in 2009. 

But Friedman did go on to say that Rick Santorum has no chance of becoming the next US president, something that appears to be correct, given the huge polling lead Mitt Romney has over his Republican rivals. So it wasn't all bad.

Recommended: 5 good books about Egypt
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