Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Egypt

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

The military coup that removed Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last week marks a significant setback for Islamist movements in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood—to which Morsi belonged—is the most prominent and important. But, the coup also returns the Brotherhood to a position they are quite used to, that of the unfairly marginalized voice of the silent, oppressed majority.

Egypt’s military government has signaled that it would move relatively quickly to new elections and a constitutional referendum. (It would probably be the first coup-led government in history to actually do so.)  

As for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, as analyst Michael Wahid Hanna writes in Foreign Policy, “In the end, no functional political order can emerge, let alone a democratic transition, without the free, fair, and full participation by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Despite being removed from power, the Brotherhood remains a deeply rooted political force in Egypt. U.S. policymakers are now faced with basically the same challenge I described in a piece for the Prospect back in January 2011, when the Egyptian revolution was just getting started: developing a coherent approach to the fact of political Islam.

In that piece, I noted that President Obama’s June 2009 speech at Cairo University contained some good ideas for how to move forward with a more inclusive system in Egypt. “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them,” Obama said.  “And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people.” He then laid down this marker:

There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

While this shouldn’t be taken as a defense of Egypt’s military coup, it’s clear that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to meet this bar. Having legitimately won what all observers agree was a fair election, they proceeded to rule in a majoritarian fashion, ramming through a series of conservative measures without any regard for the many millions of Egyptians who had not voted for them. Still, the Egyptian military’s response has been extreme, arresting many of the group’s members and killing some 50 pro-Brotherhood demonstrators last week, none of which bodes well for national unity or reconciliation. Egypt clearly has a long road ahead. Decisions by Brotherhood leaders of whether and how to continue to contest Egyptian politics will help determine how rocky that road is.

Unsurprisingly, some commentators have been quick to draw the wrong lessons from the Brotherhood’s fall. The New York Times’ David Brooks has gotten some grief, most of it quite deserved, for writing that Egypt “seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients” for a democratic transition. Brooks was apparently trying to register an argument about the importance of political culture in developing democracy. It’s worth taking a moment to suss out the two versions of the “culture” argument. The first is that it takes a long time for democratic norms and institutions to take root in any society—that democracy takes practice. This is an uncontroversial argument, but it’s often used by conservatives to smuggle in its stupider brother: the idea that certain cultures and peoples are uniquely resistant to democracy. This idea is almost always accompanied by the insistence that we need to deal harshly with those cultures and peoples.

It’s an important discussion, and unfortunate that Brooks couldn’t have intervened less clumsily. But, as Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, observed, “These are deep waters that Brooks does not have the apparatus to navigate.”

The award for the most staggeringly moronic response has to go to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers. They wrote, “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.”

Even leaving aside the thousands of dissidents who were kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, and murdered by the Pinochet regime, if you’re going to present a guy who took 17 years to crush his political opposition before calling new elections as a model worth emulating, then doesn’t it seem a little unfair to cheer a coup against Morsi after only one year?

More seriously, while exhibiting a sort of Cold War romanticism that’s at once pathetic and quaint, it also kind of gives the game away: Some people don't have a problem with dictators, just with Islamist dictators.

One of the most important understandings post-9/11 was that U.S. support for undemocratic dictators in the Middle East generated anti-American resentment, which in turn helped inspire the attacks of that September morning. The Bush administration, to its credit, concluded that support for political reform and the creation of more legitimate governments was in the U.S. national interest, even if its own policies, particularly the war in Iraq, undermined this goal. It would be a tragedy if the U.S. simply stood by and watched the return of unaccountable, undemocratic government in Egypt, in pursuit of a kind of stability that we should know by now is an illusion. 

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