It’s hard to know what to wish for in Egypt.
Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood have reneged on their promises to steer the country towards a middle course in social matters, such as women’s rights. What’s worse, the economy is a mess. On the other hand, Morsi is the legally elected head of state, thanks mostly to the fracturing of the large secular humanist population into several parties in national elections.
No one wants a military takeover—and yet, if the military pushed Morsi out, installed a technocratic government of the Egyptian meritocracy headed by the highly competent and apparently honest Mohamed ElBaradei, wouldn’t that give Egypt some stability? Couldn’t the land of pyramids then engage in Democracy 2.0, another chance to get it right? Hasn’t a similar process of military-induced governmental reset taken place in Turkey and a few South American countries?
National Public Radio intimated this morning that the new generation of Egyptian generals is not blood-thirsty, suggesting that if the military took over, there would not be a lot violence. It sounds like the kind of wishful speculation in which the American major media love to engage when it comes to foreign countries. Through the years, the major media has been ready to swallow “the light at the end of the tunnel,” “the people will rise up in democracy” and “the war will be over in a few months.” We heard that last claim about both the Civil War and Afghanistan…and it’s what the British generals told King George.
Violence can come from many sources. Thus, even if the Egyptian military managed to enforce constraint, that leaves a small but blood thirsty fragment of extreme right-wing Islamists who could inflict a lot of damage with a few bombs.
One group we all should admire are the protesters. Imagine, they are risking their lives to gather and make their voices heard. They are sick and tired of the economy floundering, sick and tired of bread lines and gas lines, sick and tired of unemployment and underemployment, sick and tired of government corruption and corporate-government cronyism.
Sounds just like the Occupy Movement protesters on Wall Street and all over the world. While I would be delighted to have the protesters play a major role in the Egyptian government, it is therefore highly unlikely that our leaders agree with me. The history of American statecraft is to prefer to do business with authoritarian governments—they’re stable, they’re hard to vote out of office and their leaders tend to want to enrich their own pockets, making them open to business deals with large American corporations. Whatever they say, be it Bush or Obama, our leaders care more about Egyptian cotton and Egyptian markets than they do about Egyptian civil liberties and Egyptian democracy.
The United States and Egypt have been economically entwined for decades. Whoever ends up leading Egypt will quickly see the folly of trying to change that. To protect the economic interests of its large corporations, the U.S. government will be inclined to deal with any Egyptian government. Even if Egypt took a wide swing to the right as Iran did, there is just too much money on the table not to come to some sort of an agreement.
That is, unless either the United States or the Egyptian government does something real stupid.
We can’t control extremists of any stripe, but we can control our own actions. That’s why the best thing the United States can do right now is to stay completely out of Egyptian affairs. And when things settle down, let’s make sure that whichever faction ends up on top—military authoritarians, secular humanist democrats or Islamists—understands the very minimum in civil rights, environmental regulation and workplace safety that we demand from our trading partners.