After the Coup
Egypt must reach out to the Islamists it is now jailing
The greatest blow to Islamic terrorism in recent years came not from the killing of Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but rather from the Arab Spring. When millions of Arabs went out into the streets in protest against their dictators, the world saw that they were asking for freedom and justice, not an Islamic state. Indeed, perhaps the sharpest blow to the jihadi worldview was to see Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—the largest Islamist organization in the Arab world—join the 2011 mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square to ask for elections, not Shari‘a. The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, certainly saw the danger and denounced the Brotherhood for participating in the democratic process.
There is jubilation in many quarters of Egypt and beyond over the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. And it is true that President Mohamed Morsi’s government was a disaster in many dimensions. The Brotherhood ruled in a manner that excluded large segments of the society, used and abused the law and overreached. Perhaps as important, it was utterly incompetent, steering Egypt’s already dysfunctional economy into the gutter. It had become wildly unpopular, with millions who had supported it now actively opposed. The Brotherhood was almost certain to be roundly defeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Had it failed politically, electorally and democratically, that would have been a huge boost for the forces of liberalism and reform in the Arab world. It would have sent the signal that political Islam may be a heartwarming, romantic idea but is utterly unsuited to governing—that mullahs can preach, but they cannot manage an economy.
Instead, the great danger of what has happened in Egypt is that followers of the Muslim Brotherhood will once again become victims, gaining in stature as they are jailed, persecuted and excluded. And some of them will decide that democracy is a dead end.
The most important debate in Egypt since the July 3 coup, taking place behind closed doors and on websites and in chat rooms, revolves around this question: How will followers of political Islam respond to the Brotherhood’s ouster? For decades there has been a dispute among these groups on whether to embrace democracy or work through underground means and methods. The Brotherhood renounced violence some 40 years ago and chose to work though social and political organization, pressing for democratic change. This stance was actively criticized and opposed by the more extreme Islamist groups in Egypt and beyond—like al-Qaeda—which advocated violent struggle as the only way forward. Those groups now feel vindicated.
Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab movement weighed in with a series of tweets (yes, it has a Twitter account): “When will the Muslim Brotherhood wake up from their deep slumber and realise the futility of their efforts at instituting change?” “It’s now time for the [Brotherhood] to revise its policies, adjust its priorities and turn to the one and the only solution for change: Jihad.” An ultra-Islamist page on Facebook, Asalaffy, with more than 200,000 followers, posted a note thanking al-Zawahiri: “Thank you ... for you have warned us time and again to not enter the political game.”
Look at the world from the perspective of someone who embraces Islamic politics. In 1991, Islamists won in national elections in Algeria that were free and fair, with dozens of parties contesting and an open and lively campaign. The Algerian military annulled the results and unleashed a campaign of arrests and violence against the party that won. In 1995, Islamists won the elections in Turkey, only to have the Turkish military force the party out of power two years later in what is often referred to as a “soft coup.” In 2006, Hamas won Palestinian elections—triggering a boycott of the newly elected government by the U.S. and most of its allies.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood won at the polls three times. It won in the parliamentary elections, in the presidential election and then in its referendum for the new constitution, which passed with 64% of the vote. Last year a judge dissolved the lower house of parliament, and now the constitution has been suspended and the President is in jail. “And the message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims,” wrote Essam el Haddad, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, on his Facebook page.
In 1997, I wrote an essay titled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” In it I described the troubling phenomenon of elected governments systematically abusing individual rights and depriving people of liberty. I pointed out that in the West over the past half-century, democracy and liberty had gone together, but in many developing countries we were seeing them split apart. Elections were producing illiberal regimes.
Egypt under Morsi was a textbook illiberal democracy. But the Egyptian military is not a force for liberty or the rule of law. This is the regime that ran Egypt for six decades, abusing human rights, crushing economic freedom, banning free media and jailing political opponents. The choice in Egypt is not between bad democrats and a Singapore-style efficient and open autocracy. It is between illiberal generals and illiberal politicians. The tragedy of the Arab world is that it is trapped between these two forces, neither of which is fertile ground for the flourishing of liberal democracy.
Egypt does have a second chance. The military has done some things right since the coup, quickly scheduling elections and the drafting of a new constitution. But the central challenge it faces is to bring the forces of political Islam back into the political process. Remember that they still represent millions of Egyptians. For Egypt to be stable, let alone democratic, the Muslim Brotherhood has to be allowed to compete in elections at every level.
The U.S. has been a bystander in this revolution. This is not because it is incompetent, as many of its critics have charged. The events unfolding in Egypt are the product of a fast-moving, fluid situation in a country that is deeply polarized and in the midst of a social and political revolution. No outside power is going to accurately predict what will happen, nor should it try to do so. Egyptians will determine what will happen in Egypt and then the outside world will deal with these Egyptian realities.
That is not enough for many in Washington, who long for the days when the U.S. would direct events in foreign countries. Neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan fumed in the Washington Post that the Obama Administration did not seem able to wield the power that came with the $1.5 billion in annual aid that the U.S. provides Egypt. Within three days, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait announced that they were providing the new Egyptian government with loans and grants amounting to $12 billion.
Egyptians are certain that the U.S. is the evil hand behind their woes—whatever those woes may be. When it was Mubarak, we were responsible. When it is democracy, we are also responsible. But that says more about Egypt’s broken political culture and its conspiracy theories than about reality. Kagan writes, “The assumption in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, is that nothing happens unless the U.S. wills it.” Yes, but the vast majority of Egyptians—75% in the most recent poll—also believe that no Arabs were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Does that make it true? It is bad enough that Egyptians have political views that are based in fantasy. It becomes much worse when serious American commentators give credence to these mythologies.