Back to the Future in Egypt

It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim.

What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with.

One of the great (and little-noticed) ironies of the post-9/11 era is that, in an effort to justify its grandly transformative policies in the Middle East, the Bush administration and its supporters latched upon a leftist critique of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, America’s interest in stability in the Middle East had led it to support a set of undemocratic, authoritarian regimes that promised to keep the peace if we didn't bother them about human rights.  The United States allied with leaders who could deliver stability rather than support the development of democratic institutions, ignoring long-term costs. In this analysis, support for these regimes powered anti-American resentment across the Middle East, which in turn contributed to the September 11 attacks.  

“For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat,” Bush said in his second inaugural in January 2005. “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Later that year, neocon-in-chief Bill Kristol reiterated that stance at a Tel Aviv University symposium on the Bush foreign policy and neoconservatism: “We had made deals with dictators who seemed to be pro-American for various reasons and who seemed to be keeping the peace with Israel in some cases, and for various reasons ... The reaction to these dictators was, in many cases, leading to greater anti-Americanism, greater extremism and greater terrorism.”

Kristol had apparently rethought this by the time he appeared on ABC this Sunday. Asked about the Israeli government’s position on the Egyptian coup, he said, “Well, I think they prefer the military to rule to the Muslim Brotherhood ruling. And I think an awful lot of people in the region prefer that. You know, an awful lot of the Arab governments prefer it. And it’s not clear to me that we shouldn’t prefer it.”

Kristol’s reversal is mild compared to that of other former Bush-agenda supporters. As recently as 2011, Commentary’s Michael Rubin claimed the Arab awakenings a success for Bush’s agenda, and ranted at those State Department-types who “believed that Arab autocracy rather than democracy better ensured American national security.” But last week, Rubin had rediscovered the value of authoritarian state violence, writing that, unless the Muslim Brotherhood changed its stripes, “then it should suffer the consequences of its actions. And if those consequences result in exponentially higher Brotherhood casualties than army casualties, then so be it. That is the truest path to peace.” That’s Rubin calling for an escalation of state violence against demonstrators who, as Ali Gharib noted, had been largely peaceful until the crackdown began.

In 2010, The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens used the occasion of Iraq’s parliamentary elections to mock those who questioned Bush’s original goal of delivering Iraq from tyranny. But last week, Stephens, who never met an Orientalist cliché he couldn’t exhume, wrote that the Egyptian military had “a keener understanding of the way Egyptians think than the usual Western clichés about violence always begetting violence,” and that the United States should help out by sending the coup regime more riot gear.

I should recognize that a number of neoconservatives—Senator John McCain, Robert Kagan, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, to name some of the most prominent—have retained their commitment to democracy, and have called for suspending aid to Egypt. But, as journalist Jim Lobe observes, the growing split over Egypt in that camp offers more evidence that, for many supporters of the Iraq war, democracy promotion was just a cover.

A similar chain of events unfolded before. More extreme Islamist groups like Al Qaeda have long insisted that democratic participation was a dead end, and violent jihad was the only acceptable course. For many potential recruits in the Middle East, the Egyptian crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has probably affirmed that argument. “The coup d’etat in Cairo and the bloodshed since then has validated al-Qaeda’s narrative more powerfully than any event in the last two decades,” wrote intelligence veteran Bruce Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The future of global jihad is being defined in Egypt this summer. The next generation of al-Qaeda is being born.”

None of this should be taken as a supportive brief for the continued reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, in addition to being deeply illiberal and authoritarian in its own fashion, was simply incompetent. The prospects for Egypt’s democratic development were already in a precarious state with the Brotherhood in control. But the military coup, and the ensuing violence (which has also included reprehensible reprisal attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood against Christian churches and schools, and calls by Brotherhood leaders for martyrdom against military oppression), has made that more precarious, not less.

It’s also worth noting the irony in supporters of the Bush administration’s Middle East agenda recoiling from Islamist rule, given that the Iraq war established the first Islamist-dominated government in the Arab world. (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party is a Shi’a Islamist organization modeled by its founders on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.) More to the point, if the prospect of Islamists competing in elections is unacceptable to you, then I question how serious you are about democracy in the Middle East.

There’s a distinct sense of “back to the future” in the new enthusiasm for Egyptian military rule among former democracy promoters. But the idea that we can run back to the warm, stabilizing embrace of authoritarianism is a delusion. Those supporting the Egyptian crackdown “just [don't] understand how the region, and how Egypt specifically, has changed,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East analyst, at the Century Foundation. “Repressive stability is no longer stabilizing.” What tragedy will it take for us to re-learn that lesson?

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