There is too much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about Egypt. Obviously bloodshed is regrettable but neither surprising in the circumstances nor likely to escalate or even continue. The Muslim Brotherhood is a vile organization; and Egypt, the West, and everyone with an interest except the Islamist extremists and those secularists who skulk forward hiding under their piously flowing raiment can all be grateful that the Brotherhood’s plan to execute an incremental coup in Allende-like fashion, construing a 51.7 per cent mandate as a license to sectarianize the country and translate democracy into dictatorship, has failed. Clearly, a large number of Brotherhood supporters peeled off in the one year of the spectacular failure of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency. Unemployment reached stratospheric levels, and he confirmed the wildest expectations of those of us who predicted, on this site and elsewhere, that the Brotherhood would be even more economically inept than the generals had been.
At the end of the Korean War, 60 years ago, Egypt had a higher standard of living than war-ravaged South Korea. At the local manifestation of the Arab Spring two years ago, after military rule in Egypt for almost all the intervening years, by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, South Korea’s per capita annual income was five times that of Egypt, $30,000 to $6,000. Now, after one year of the shrill tinkering and posturing of the unprepossessing immediate past president, the ratio has expanded to more than six to one, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic miracle generated a 17 percent vertically descending camel ride for the 84 million people of Egypt. Whether it is widely touted as a cause of instability or not, this is the primary reason for Egyptian national discontent. There is absolutely no excuse for one-third of Egypt’s textile industry to be shut down and for a complete absence of investment and job creation, and scores of millions of Egyptians got the message that the Brotherhood leadership were dogmatic and authoritarian windbags who, although they may not have had the time to develop the self-indulgent habits of the entrenched military rulers of the preceding 57 years, were even less capable than the military of generating economic growth, were preoccupied with the devious and illegitimate imposition of their theocratic absolutism on a secular society, and were engaged in the unabashed rape of the democracy that elevated them. It was a swift and providential disillusionment.
The Egyptian army is the most respected institution in the country (as almost the only one that possesses any coherence or discipline), and it did enable Sadat to make an honorable peace with Israel, by crossing the Suez Canal and piercing the Bar Lev Line in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, (although President Nixon and Henry Kissinger had to intervene to prevent Ariel Sharon from forcing the surrender of the Egyptian Sinai army, an under-emphasized fact in Egyptian lore). The army dented, but did not fracture, its prestige by the bungling tug-of-war it conducted with the Brotherhood for over a year following the ouster of Mubarak (who was in fact one of the better rulers in Egyptian history, which is proverbially long but not thickly forested with enlightened rulers). This time around, the army took no chances, awaited a vast public demonstration of discontent, gave the hapless imposter Morsi an ultimatum (when has a revolution produced a more implausible national redeemer? Charlie Chaplin could not have portrayed this poltroon), acted almost bloodlessly with the support of a coalition of civilian interests, has installed a neutral government of technocrats, and is promising constitutional reform and new elections. It is a legitimate coup: a response to popular unrest, supported by the leader of the secular democrats, the principal clerical intellectual, and the leader of the long-suffering sectarian minority (the Coptic Christians).
The democratic leader, Mohamed ElBaradei (who was no prize as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but in the land of the pharaohs, one has to take democracy wherever it can be found), is the vice president of the interim regime, though he disapproves the recent recourse to force to disperse demonstrators. The head of the ancient Sunni Muslim university Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Tayyeb, endorsed the coup on the night but has been sufficiently discountenanced by the army’s crowd-control techniques that he has announced he is going into seclusion until the crisis is resolved. (This is an admirable response that, if emulated by most university heads in the West, would improve political discourse and could not fail to make for better academies.) The army has placed its tanks on the high ground of legitimacy, as it has entrusted the head of the constitutional court, Adly Mansour (who was chief justice for only two days before his rocketing upward mobility conveyed him to the nation’s highest office), with the task of producing all-party recommendations for constitutional renewal, and supervising a national referendum on proposed changes and then new elections. There is room for some wariness about the army’s preparedness to leave the process completely uninfluenced, but it is scrupulously and righteously populating the ramparts of democracy and constitutionalism, and doing so with its entire arsenal, and that position is practically and morally insuperable. Charles de Gaulle demonstrated this, albeit in one of the most intellectually sophisticated and prosperous countries in the world, in 1968: Determination of the course of the country by free elections, with the alternative of heavy-handed military enforcement of the conditions necessary for democracy to function, isolates lawless elements that are trying to exploit civilized discontent.
In Egypt, most of the tears now being shed for democracy are premature, and probably hypocritical anyway. The Muslim Brotherhood favored exploitation of democracy to destroy democracy; and Salifah, the more extreme Islamist party, stupidly endorsed the army’s action for the first few days because of Morsi’s incompetence and pallid ineffectuality, and it has now recanted. The opposition is torn between those who sullenly object to a putsch but cling to the possibilities of democratic redress, and those who are calling for a new Intifada. Comparisons with Algeria are completely unfounded. That was a country where a guerrilla army fought a fierce battle with France for eight years, and although the French army effectively won the open war and severely repressed the independence fighters, the French military victory could not produce a political victory and Algeria’s independence was negotiated. The emerging Algerian army was battle-hardened, but so was the civil population that nurtured them. The war had killed more than 500,000 people in a country of about 9 million. Egypt has no such tradition and historically its people are gentler. The army and all militarily minded people in Egypt are arrayed with the democrats, the clergy is fragmented, and there is no tradition of a heroic struggle for independence — “the peace of the brave,” de Gaulle called it.
The rule of thumb in attempted uprisings is whether the authorities will order their forces to fire live ammunition at domestic opponents, whether the orders will be carried out, and whether these measures will suffice. The new rulers in Cairo have already shown that the answer to the first two questions is affirmative, and so, almost certainly, will be the answer to the third. No serious numbers of Egyptians are going to risk their own lives to restore the Muslim Brotherhood over the sternly enforced determination of the entire military and constabulary forces to permit what they are promising will be a democratic resolution of this impasse.
Many doubt the pristine intentions of the army, but when the physical safety and liberty of people are in the balance, they will believe what they find it more convenient to believe, especially in a place where there has never been any sophisticated political culture or popular liberty. More probable than the negative Algerian scenarios being bandied about are the possibilities that Egypt will finally enjoy economically literate government; and that the most populous Arab power will lead the rest of the Arab world in setting aside the red herring of Israel that for so long has been used to distract the Arab masses from the misgovernment they have endured, and will focus public attention and official energies on better government. This, as Pope Benedict XVI gently suggested at Regensburg in 2006, has been a much neglected cause in most of the Muslim world throughout these 14 centuries of the age of the prophet.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently publishedFlight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].