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Just two-and-a-half years ago, advocates of “the Arab Spring” argued it would bring democracy to the Middle East and end terrorism’s attraction in the Muslim world. Large demonstrations, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, filled Western television screens, and our media reported excitedly that the Internet-age demonstrators used Facebook and Twitter. The fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, in power for three decades, embodied the widely accepted narrative that ousting authoritarian regimes was easy, costless and unambiguously positive.
But not all street demonstrators are Jeffersonian democrats, not all users of social media are Thoreau-style idealists, and not all post-authoritarian regimes are better than what they replace. Remember Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, where he defined “Conservative” as “a statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”
The Arab Spring stemmed largely from political and economic factors embedded in the region, not from the actions of outside powers. Nonetheless, in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama’s month-long equivocation about Egypt’s direction, followed at last by supporting Mubarak’s ouster, undoubtedly had negative consequences in Egypt and throughout the region. Loyalty and upholding commitments are valuable commodities in international affairs, even if the regime involved doesn’t meet our standards of democratic purity. But loyalty works both ways, and the impression Obama created was that America expected it from its allies, but wasn’t prepared to extend it in return. We will pay for that perception as a fair-weather friend.
Obviously, Mubarak was no Jeffersonian democrat. The former commander of Egypt’s air force, he became Anwar Sadat’s vice president, and then president when the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Sadat for concluding the Camp David peace accord with Israel. Mubarak led a violent crackdown against the Brotherhood, watched it warily for 30 years, and warned the West that if his government fell, the Brotherhood would inevitably take power. Western cognoscenti scoffed at Mubarak’s prediction, calling it just a convenient excuse for repressing the Brotherhood and other dissidents threatening the ultimate authority of the military, which controlled Egypt since King Farouk’s 1952 overthrow.
Mubarak, it transpires, understood his country better than the Western know-it-alls. When Obama abandoned Mubarak, the military did too, having already lost confidence in him because his wife and son, Gamal, were scheming to install Gamal as his successor. Gamal utterly lacked his father’s military credentials, and Pharaonic succession in the 21st century proved to be as unpopular with the generals as with Egypt’s population generally.
The military had little desire to govern openly, so it did what “the Arab Spring” professed to want: move to “democracy” by holding elections. Having overthrown Mubarak, however, the street protesters had no coherent, operational roadmap. Only after the political process was launched did they and their Western allies begin to realize they were moving inexorably toward electoral victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Islamicists. Indeed, in what foreign observers characterized as generally free and fair elections, the Islamicists won almost three-quarters of the seats in Egypt’s two houses of parliament, and the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi narrowly won the presidency over a Mubarak-era figure. It was surprising not that Morsi’s win was narrow, but that a symbol of the supposedly hated Mubarak era did so well.
In office for a year, Morsi’s supporters rewrote Egypt’s constitution to try to lock the Brotherhood into power permanently, while ignoring a sinking economy that went into free fall. This combination of economic ruin and the blind pursuit of an Islamicist state brought demonstrators back into Egypt’s streets, even though many of them might well support an Islamicist agenda once the economy improved and more competent leadership emerged. It was disagreement over priorities, not love of democracy, which inspired many Tahrir Square demonstrators this summer.
So, Egypt’s military overthrew a second government in two years (this one popularly elected), and launched a process to schedule elections (again) and rewrite the constitution (again). This time, we are told (again), it will work out.
Plainly, however, democracy is more than just holding elections and counting votes. As John Stuart Mill wrote in Representative Government, a people have to be “willing to receive” such government, they have to “be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation,” and “they should be willing and able to fulfil the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.” Egypt and most other Arab Spring countries have simply not yet achieved these conditions. This is no criticism of a region or a people. Europe did not exactly cover itself with democratic glory in much of the 20th century, and today in Russia we see a country sliding out of a brief season of democracy back into authoritarianism.
The lesson for America is to give priority to its national interests, not abstract democratic theory. Most importantly, Egypt’s adherence to Camp David is the foundation of U.S. Middle East policy and Israel’s security, and Mubarak never wavered in his commitment to the treaty. In the 2012 Egyptian elections, by contrast, Mohammed Morsi was not alone in questioning Camp David’s legitimacy. Even secular politicians attacked its central element, “land for peace,” implying that withdrawal could ultimately be an option.
Moreover, keeping the Suez Canal open is critical to the world economy. An unstable Egypt inevitably raises international fears that terrorists or saboteurs will obstruct the canal, with potentially devastating consequences. Global oil-price increases last week underlined this fundamental geopolitical reality.
We should insist on Egypt meeting its international commitments, and worry less about second-guessing what could be a lengthy transition to representative government. That does not mean abandoning America’s commitment to its own ideals, or ceasing to insist that any Egyptian government respect individual rights, such as those of religious minorities such as Coptic Christians. But it also means remembering our own fundamental priorities in the Middle East, and having a more realistic understanding both of Egypt’s basic circumstances and our ability to influence Egypt’s domestic politics than we have displayed since the Arab Spring began.
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