Events in Egypt have captured the world’s attention, as the army toppled the first elected president in a nation that not only fascinates us for its history, but also which is always key to other events in the Mideast. Writers around the globe are finding in the current unrest clues to understanding other big issues — from America’s response to Middle Eastern problems, to the future of Islamism, to the historical legacy, or lack thereof, of the whole Arab Spring movement. We found these five essays helpful in understanding this unfolding, interesting story; we offer excerpts here.
Americans always think free elections solve everything. They don’t.
From John B. Judis in The New Republic: How should the United States respond to the Egyptian military’s ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi? On one side, Sen. John McCain, along with Robert Kagan and other foreign policy experts, is calling for cutting off all aid of Egypt until there is a “new constitution and a free and fair election.” On the other side, Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations, wants to use the threat of suspending military aid as “leverage” to persuade the military to effect “a transition to civilian rule as quickly as possible.” House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers thinks the military, which is the prime beneficiary of American aid, should “continue to be rewarded” for encouraging stability in Egypt.
If you break down these arguments, there are two disagreements: One is over whether the United States should immediately suspend aid to Egypt — which for some includes American support for an International Monetary Fund loan; the other is over what America’s objective should be — encouraging “free and fair elections” or “civilian government” and stability? I find myself falling somewhere in between these alternatives. I would like to see the Obama administration suspend or loudly threaten to suspend aid to Egypt’s military, especially in the wake of the recent massacre of Morsi supporters. But I don’t think that the United States should condition the resumption of aid on Egypt holding a “free and fair election.” What it should seek instead is a government in which all the leading forces are represented and in which they can learn to work together.
Many American politicians and policy-makers see elections as a panacea — as not just a necessary, but a sufficient condition of a full-fledged democracy, as the ultimate unifying force in a country. That’s how many of our policy-makers envisaged elections in Iraq or Afghanistan. But as these instances demonstrated, elections can simply reinforce and deepen existing divisions within a country. They can make a country less governable. That could happen in Egypt if the United States, using its considerable clout, pressures the country into elections before the Egyptians have done anything to heal the divisions that are tearing the country apart.
The key actor in Egyptian politics since 1952 has been the military. As Steven Cook of Council of Foreign Relations has argued, the military — first under Gamel Abdel Nasser, then Anwar Sadat, and then Hosni Mubarak — has ruled Egypt without directly governing it. Egypt’s ruling politicians have come out of the military and owe their position to it. And since the 1970s, the military has become a prime force in Egypt’s economy as well. As Cook writes, Egypt’s military is active in “everything from weapons production and procurement to the manufacture of appliances and footwear, agriculture, food processing, and services related to aviation, security, engineering, land reclamation, and tourism.”
When the military’s power has been challenged, it has eventually moved against its opponents….
Standing back and letting Egyptians work it all out not such a bad idea
From John Norris, writing in Foreign Policy: President Obama deserves credit for not publicly hyperventilating about the situation. Having the White House and State Department appear a bit distant is not the worst thing when dealing with a country that justifiably harbors pent-up resentment regarding a long history of U.S. meddling (and, yes, even billions of dollars in aid). Having Washington publicly take sides in a fluid, messy upheaval will not serve either capital well at this point.
But the choices will keep getting harder. Even if the administration wanted to, steering a democratic transition from afar is incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, there is no real substitute for a genuine Egyptian leadership that can cobble together a functioning coalition of parties and individuals willing to work together in the national interest. That is why Morsi’s short tenure will ultimately be seen as such a tragically lost opportunity.
Washington wants the Egyptians to move quickly to re-establish functioning democracy, but speed is not always helpful when it comes to shaping a constitution that is genuinely inclusive or getting buy-in from moderate Islamist parties outraged by the killing of their supporters. Getting the Muslim Brotherhood back on board in a productive way will not happen overnight.
Egypt is in the middle of a historic, painful, difficult, and long-overdue political transition. All the parties involved need to allow time to reach some basic consensus. Indeed, the current situation in Afghanistan might have looked very different today if George W. Bush’s administration had allowed time for a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation to take place rather than simply ramrodding through rapid elections and the anointment of President Hamid Karzai.
In many ways, this is going to be the hardest lesson for Washington to learn. Having treated the Middle East as the lone regional exception to its democracy-promotion efforts for decades, policymakers in Washington decided after the 9/11 attacks that democracy should be on the fast track in the Middle East — or, that is to say, that it should be on a fast track where it is strategically expedient. Yet, it is exactly because this democratic dialogue was deferred for so long that these conversations to build consensus on everything from the role of religion in politics to youth unemployment will have to be given real time, as messy and problematic as that might be.
The coup was right because the radical Islamists it deposed are wrong
From David Brooks, writing in the New York Times: The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.
Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.
Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.
Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.
World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death.
This wasn’t a revolution, or a coup — the Army has been in control all along
From Leon Hadar, in The American Conservative: Call it Tahrir Square Syndrome. Indeed, in the fantastical universe of our experts, the people oust the autocrats (with direct or indirect American support) in order to allow free elections, which supposedly equal democracy — unless the people elect the bad guys, which then leaves the people no choice but to oust the elected bad guys and return the autocrats to power (with direct or indirect American support) and have another open election in which the people will elect the good guys. Or not.
What Westerners have yet to realize is that what has been happening in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is not part of a new historical epoch driven by the quest for liberal democracy, but is first and foremost a struggle for power, as I pointed out here in the aftermath of the first Tahrir Square demonstrations two years ago.
What happened in Egypt last week was not a military coup for one simple reason: the military has not been out of power since the 1952 revolution — when it abolished the old political system — and that includes the period after the generals removed President Hosni Mubarak from office. Contrary to the conventional Western narrative, the protesters failed to ignite a full-blown revolution two years ago.
Mass protests may indeed reflect political anxiety and anti-government sentiments among some members of the population. But to translate a media event in which “the whole world is watching” into significant political change, you need more than thousands, or even millions, of protesters. To achieve a real overhaul of the political and economic system you need a unified and well-organized movement that is willing to work with other political forces to achieve a set of coherent and realistic goals.
The protests that swept European capitals in 1848 and the student demonstrations of the 1960s couldn’t transform the status quo because the leaders of these movements failed to reach out to other segments of their nations, including members of the middle class, workers, and peasants. In fact, not only did the students marching in Paris and Chicago in 1968 fail to achieve their goals, but they also triggered powerful counter-revolutionary forces that made it possible for Charles de Gaulle to get re-elected by a huge margin in France and for Richard Nixon to win the race for the White House. Similarly, the so-called revolutions of 1848 ended up strengthening Europe’s autocracies and created conditions for the rise of illiberal nationalist forces.
In New York and London, viewers of Al Jazeera and CNN watched the demonstrators in Tahrir Square two years ago and were impressed by young, liberal, secular types with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, articulating in perfect English their hopes for a democratic and liberal future. But when Mubarak was deposed, the only substantive change was the military allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in an open election.
The real loser is moderate Islamism; the coup and army brutality have boosted extremists
From Khaled Abou El Fadl, in Al Jazeera: After the military coup in Egypt, so many commentators have jumped to the conclusion that political Islam has been dealt a deathblow from which such movements will never recover. This could have been the case if Morsi was defeated in the ballot box, or if he was forced to resign through a persistent and patient movement of civil disobedience. Now that the Egyptian army has upheld the long honoured tradition of authoritarian societies by overthrowing a civilian government, the picture has changed dramatically. Now that the streets of Egypt have once again become drenched with the blood of civilians and the prisons have become full of political dissidents, the losers and winners must be assessed in a very different way.
The reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood believed in the political process and tried to practice it. Like the Salvation Front of Algeria before them, they believed that democracy and Islamism are reconcilable, and that it is possible to build an overlapping moral consensus with non-Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood were consistently accused of being exclusionary and of functioning with a tribal mentality. Ironically, their opponents adopted a no less exclusionary discourse of calling the Muslim Brotherhood fascists and Nazis — an accusation as bad as being called infidels or sinners. While the Muslim Brotherhood showed that they are no angels and are subject to all the flaws of political competitors, Egyptian secularists once again demonstrated that their commitment to human rights and civil values is fickle at best….
What has been dealt a deathblow after the Egyptian coup is moderate Islamism. What has been dealt a deathblow and has become a stale joke is the idea of human rights in Egypt. The so-called liberal secularists have once again showed themselves to be more than willing to forget about lofty principles when it comes to checkmating their Islamist opponents.
The so-called liberal secularists of Egypt exploit the language of democracy and human rights in the same way that Islamists exploit the symbols of Islam and the values of Shariah. Both preach what they do not practice, and both behave in ways that completely undermine what they preach.
So who emerges as the winner in Egypt? The people? I don’t think so. After the coup, hundreds of people have been injured, killed and imprisoned and many, many more are yet to come. Force begets force and despotism has a remarkable way of perpetuating itself, like a lethal cancer. The military, as always, emerges with its traditional privileges and powers intact. The horrendously savage security forces of Egypt emerge as winners.