Jul 08 2013

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The Egyptian Revolution 2.0

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Second Time's a Charm...

Second Time’s a Charm…

“Since no man has any natural authority over his fellows, and since force alone bestows no right, all legitimate authority among men must be based on covenants.” ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

But what if there are no covenants?  That is the central question the US must resolve in its policy toward Egypt in the wake of the July 3rd coup.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has astutely cast the current debate over next steps in Egypt as a clash between “process” versus “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.”

“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.”

In actuality both of Brooks’ points are true.

The coup has, in fact, deeply fractured the foundations of Egypt’s nacient democracy, with longer-term reverberations yet to come, particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood turns violent in its rejection of the coup and takes the fight to the streets.

But given Morsi’s year-long record in office – where his Administration effectively subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process and concentrated p;ower in the presidency – further delay in dispatching him and his Muslim Brotherhood henchmen might very well have spelled the end of the Egyptian democratic experiment in favor of a Sunni version of an Iranian-style theocracy.

This leaves Egypt with no mutually agreed upon covenant, as Rousseau described, but rather with two competing legitimacies that see themselves as equally valid – one the product of a recognized democratic election, and the other of the people and the street.

What to do?

Restore Morsi and Egypt will be unrecognizable as a democracy within five years. Throw your lot in with the anti-Morsi forces and you have tacitly endorsed the right of the military to intervene whenever the people take to the streets in large numbers – a modified form of mob rule.

The idea of “government by protest” is even more important when you consider the blatant incompetence of Morsi’s management (or non-management) of the economy, which has left Egypt virtually bankrupt. The urgent need for reforms that will necessarily be painful on the very people who protest against Morsi today creates a compelling dilemma.

Now that the military has intervened to overthrow a democratically elected government – unlike Mubarak who was an autocrat – what is the standard for future military interventions? Mubarak’s fall could be seen as effort to save the nation and respond to the popular will, but the lines blur considerably when you consider Morsi, no matter how objectionable his leadership and policies were.

What if a new government commits to the very economic policies that present long-term stability and growth for Egypt, but cause short-term dislocation and distress? Will the crowds return to the streets? Will the military react? Will democracy in Egypt become a symptom of economic paralysis instead of a cure?

For the United States, two years of drift and reaction have narrowed policy options considerably.

Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration did not push hard for a robust civil society program under Mubarak, seeing this as “exporting freedom” and “imposing American ideals” on others.  Consequently, when the revolution did come, and Mubarak was deposed, there was no well-organized, secular opposition – only the Brotherhood. Then, strangely, America’s greatest community organizer did not press to help organize the Egyptian opposition forces favorably disposed to multiparty, inclusive democracy, particularly at a point where US support and leverage were at their maximum.

The result was a Islamist victory in a democratic process.

In a sense, the July 3rd coup offers the Obama administration its most cherished foreign policy goal – a do-over. But starting over does not erase history.  Somehow, over the course of a year, the Administration has managed to alienate both the pro and anti-Morsi forces who see the US operating behind the scenes to support each other’s foes.

No small feat.

And while there is little doubt that the goals and policy of the interim anti-Morsi alliance are far preferable to the US than those of the Morsi administration, respect for the rule of law and the American democratic tradition make it painful and more than a bit hypocritical when the US is selective in what elections – and coups – that it declares legitimate, because they are ultimately in the US interests. That has necessarily left the Obama administration to walk a tightrope in Egypt.

In the statement released by the White House after the coup, the President stated, “I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process.”

Note, “a” democratically elected government – not “the” democratically elected government. The US “non-acknowledgement acknowledgement” of the new political order. Upon such timid and threadbare distinctions does US policy depend with regard to Egypt.

It is unbecoming of a great power.

Puny-lateralism” has been tried time and again by the Obama administration, and never with success. It is true, we may only be one country on a roster of many countries at the UN, but that equality of status is not an equality of consequence. We are not France or Kenya or Paraguay. We are the United States, for crying out loud. That means something.

We should resume acting like it.

Egypt is too big and too important to lose, to chaos or worse, civil war. The gathering sum of US policy inadequacies over the last two years does not justify continued ambivalence. Indeed, it is the logical place to launch a durable policy correction.

Democracy is a vehicle, not a destination. As David Brooks said, “Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.”

That is what should instruct the US here. The Brotherhood is allied with the very people who attacked the US on 9-11, and have been waging war against the West for 20 years. Moreover, Brotherhood governance has borne out the worst fears of what Islamic governance would look like in practice; intolerant, oppressive and vengeful.

The US should throw its full effort and resources into supporting an interim regime that creates the structure for strong and vibrant multi-party elections, the creation of a tolerant constitution, respectful of the rights of individuals as well as the role of Islam, and clears a path for the Egyptian people to finally have a genuine government of its citizens. A true covenant the respects and values all Egyptians.

The path forward will be difficult, but the US  should proceed confidently, knowing that our country is on the right side of history, and for that, no apology is necessary.

Someone should inform the President thusly.

Rousseau would have heartily approved.



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