It’s hard as Americans to know how to think about this second revolution in Egypt within two years. We wouldn’t tolerate a military takeover of a legitimately elected president and that’s why a coup like this feels wrong.
One of the people I follow on Twitter likened the military takeover in Egypt today to Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, deposing President Obama and replacing him with Supreme court Chief Justice John Roberts. We would all be outraged. But that’s not quite what is going on here.
A more accurate analogy would be that a year ago we elected Mitt Romney and he packed his Cabinet with conservative Mormon bishops who started to move hard right, or maybe we elected a Catholic Cardinal as president and he did the same with his clerics. But that’s not quite right either. It’s not fair to Romney, Mormons, or Catholics, and it just wouldn’t happen here.
I think we have allowed religion to intrude way too far into American politics but we still have a First Amendment, and Christian conservatism does not even come close to political Islam, which is seen as legitimate by many Muslim voters in many Muslim states.
No, analogies don’t really work well here. We have 226 years of stable constitutional history and peaceful and democratic transfers of power. Egypt doesn’t. It is barely emerging from dictatorship. Our military is an influential one in Congress, but it is not one that is a dominant commercial and political player in domestic politics, like it is in Egypt.
As Americans, our hearts are with the Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the young people, the secularists, the moderates, the liberals who don’t want conservative Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate the state, or the economy. Our ideals also are with them. Yet they weren’t powerful and organized enough at the ballot to defeat the Islamists. So here we are.
Democracy is still an infant, barely able to survive on its own in the Middle East outside the wombs of Israel and Turkey. Iraq is a democracy, but the ideal of Shiite, Sunni and Kurds living side by side in peaceful compromise is proving difficult. Violence still rends that country; 53 Iraqis were killed in bombings on July 2. Iran has some real aspects of democracy, for 34 years now in fact, but it’s a long way from perfect.
The Palestinians have some democracy; in Gaza, Hamas won the 2006 ballot legitimately, but then we wouldn’t speak to them after they won, and no election has been held since. They have turned more religious. The PLO was elected in the West Bank in 2005 and has had only local elections since, and secularists in the PLO barely hang on now. We did deal and talk with Mohamed Morsi after his election in Egypt last year, and he still embraced political Islam. There is no one formula in the Middle East, or anywhere, that brings about sustaining democracies.
The United States itself has a long history itself of deposing legitimately elected governments, partly because of late 20th Century anti-communism, partly because of perceived but wrongheaded self -interest—Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, the Dominican Republic in 1965, just to name a few. We’re not angels here.
In both Egypt and Syria it seems to many as if Barack Obama has sat too much on the sidelines, letting events unfold, rather than guiding them to conclusions that would be a) more in our interest, or b) more humanitarian, or c) at least more toward justice and liberal democracy. Perhaps.
But that assumes that America has a measure of control and influence that I submit we do not have, especially without further massive military interventions that I don’t think many Americans support. Egypt has 85 million people, the 15th largest country by population in the world. We couldn’t control outcomes in Iraq, a country of 31 million people, with eight years of U.S. military occupation, trillions of dollars spent, and the loss of thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.
Afghanistan, also a country of 31 million people, isn’t much better after 12 years of U.S.-led occupation and many more billions of dollars spent and thousands of U.S. and Afghan lives lost. Are we really in control there after all that?
Again, the analogies aren’t perfect, I admit. Sure, the U.S., as the world’s leading superpower, can shape, influence, nudge and cajole, in some countries and at some times more than others, and ought to when it makes sense. But sometimes things are beyond our abilities and talents. Egypt is one of those.
I’d rather have the demonstrators, the secularists, and the military in power in Egypt than the Islamists, for now. But that’s a close call, and it could all change very quickly.