Terms of Engagement

The Liberal Dark Side

Why rationalizing Egypt’s coup as a necessary evil is so self-destructive.


Of all the dreadful features of Egypt’s coup — or second revolution, if you prefer — the one which has left me feeling most discouraged is the almost universal embrace by the country’s liberal activists of the principle that rule by the military is preferable to rule by elected Islamists — even if that means crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as brutally as the government of Hosni Mubarak once crushed the liberals themselves (and the Brotherhood). A recent report by the International Crisis Group cites a senior member of the left-leaning Social Democratic party on just this Faustian bargain: "The new mindset is that ‘yes,’ Islamists may get radicalised, but we are ready to confront that and pay the cost of it…. The state apparatus is willing to deal with a cycle of violence rather than surrender its control over the state."

How can we account for a "new mindset" which looks so utterly self-destructive? If the secular and civil organs of the state — the bureaucracy, the police, the army — had, in fact, surrendered control to the government of President Mohamed Morsy, liberals might have had good reason to reach the paradoxical conclusion that only military force could restore democratic order. But of course that wasn’t so. Morsy ruled with contemptuous indifference to the political opposition, but made very few inroads on the state apparatus, which resisted him to the last. Just think of the comparison with Iraq’s President Nouri al-Maliki, who has seized control over the state and the military in a manner all too reminiscent of Saddam Hussein. Maliki probably cannot be unseated through democratic means; Morsy could have been.

What happened in Egypt was not a second "revolution" against authoritarian rule but a mass repudiation of Muslim Brotherhood rule. This contagion has spread rapidly to Tunisia, where the Brotherhood party — Ennahda — has been far more conscious than was Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party of the limits of its mandate, ruling in a coalition with two secular parties and soft-pedaling controversial provisions in the proposed new constitution. Yet tens of thousands of Tunisians have taken to the streets in recent days to shout the same slogans against the government that they did against the hated tyrant Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali. If the government doesn’t fall, precipitating a profound crisis of authority, it will only be because Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, is prepared to make compromises that Morsy would not abide.

If the same forces have arisen against the Brotherhood in Tunisia as they have in Egypt, then Morsy, no matter how incompetent and intolerant he was, can’t be wholly responsible for his fate. Nor can one say that this anti-democratic uprising of democratic forces is a "stage" of development. Mass disaffection with new democratic regimes which fail to deliver prosperity or stability is common, and sometimes leads either to an outright coup, as happened recently in Mali, or to the restoration of the ancien regime through an election, as in Ukraine. But that’s not what happened in Egypt, where the same forces that overthrew a military dictator deposed the dictator’s democratically elected replacement.

Egypt’s path has, in effect, imparted a democratic gloss to a military crackdown.

The army and police have killed several hundred protestors, some of them assassination-style. After a massacre of 83 civilians, the interior minister announced that he was restoring Mubarak’s hated secret police. What was striking, as Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch director in Egypt, noted, was not so much the policy as the complacent public announcement, which showed that the security apparatus feels "they have been returned to their pre-2011 status." Only a few — a very few — Tahrir Square activists have protested the re-militarization of the state. Emboldened, Egypt’s government is now preparing to put a violent end to the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in by Brotherhood supporters, a prospect that international diplomats are desperately trying to prevent.

Why the lack of outcry? What many of us on the outside underestimated was not the popularity of the Brotherhood — that was obvious to anyone who even superficially knew Egypt — but the depth of the suspicion and hostility it engendered. When I was in Cairo writing about the Brotherhood in the far-off days of 2007, virtually all of the secular academics and human rights activists I met viewed the Brothers less as a religious body than as an organized conspiracy, patiently gestating a plot to seize the nation’s commanding heights. A senior Mubarak official compared them to the Nazi Party. This loathing was, in fact, the one thing the state and its critics could agree on. They all thought I was a dupe for believing that the Brothers might take a constructive part in Egypt.

The role of the Brotherhood is a — perhaps the — distinctive feature of the Arab Spring, or at least of the North African sub-species. The democratic transitions in South America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, had two sides, even if the "opposition" was wildly heterogeneous. In Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps Libya, it has three: the old regime, the liberals, and the Brotherhood. The point is not simply that religious identity is more salient in the Arab world than elsewhere. The Brotherhood, after all, is less hostile to secularism than are the Salafists, who have carefully positioned themselves outside the current conflict. (In Tunisia, the Salafists are the common enemy of Ennahda and its critics.) Secular forces in Egypt fear the Islamizing zeal of the Brotherhood, but they also fear the Brotherhood as a secret organization with a history of violence, if an ancient one; an opaque leadership culture, and murky ties to the state.

Morsy’s single greatest mistake, in retrospect, was failing to put those fears to rest by ruling with the forces he had politically defeated. He was a bad president, and an increasingly unpopular one. But nations with no historical experience of democracy do not usually get an effective or liberal-minded ruler the first time around. Elections give citizens a chance to try again. With a little bit of patience, the opposition could have defeated Morsy peacefully. Instead, by colluding in the banishment of the Brotherhood from political life, they are about to replace one tyranny of the majority with another. And since many Islamists, now profoundly embittered, will not accept that new rule, the new tyranny of the majority will have to be more brutally enforced than the old one.

Perhaps this new Egypt can become a kind of modernizing autocracy, as Mubarak’s circle sought to do in the years before 2011. As I wrote in my last column, Egypt now has a highly competent economic team which could open up the economy, reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and put Egypt on a path to growth. But none of that is likely to happen so long as half the country feels disenfranchised by the other half. The half that was in is now the half that is out, but Egypt is as divided today as it was before June 30. And that’s unlikely to change, since Egypt’s liberals seem more consumed by hatred of the Brotherhood than the Brothers were by the liberals.

Perhaps we in the West were confused by the word "liberal," which we associate with a tolerant and dispassionate attitude towards difference. That kind of attitude presupposes a sense of confidence about the world, and about the political marketplace, which Arab publics have very little reason to feel. When the stakes feel truly dire, as they do in Egypt, liberalism itself can become a form of zealotry. This is the dark place in which Egypt now finds itself.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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