There is a reason why it is often said that there are no good choices for the United States in Egypt.
In my weekend column, I argued that there are only two realistic alternatives at the moment. The first is the self-defeating option popular with the Obama administration and the GOP’s erratic McCain wing: Call for a new round of popular elections. Ironically, proponents call this a “return to democracy,” although it would assure the return to power of anti-democratic Islamic supremacists who regard America, Israel, and Western Europe as enemies they are pledged to “conquer” — to borrow the word unabashedly used by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief sharia jurist.
On this score, it is crucial to grasp that, in Egypt, Islamic supremacists are not limited to the Brotherhood, not by a long shot. Let’s imagine the Brotherhood were banned, or Egyptians so soured on the Brothers that, if given the chance, they would decline to reelect Mohamed Morsi or some other Ikhwan majordomo. There would still be several other Islamic-supremacist factions in Egypt. The ones referred to as “Salafists” are even more zealous than the Brothers to impose totalitarian sharia.
Notwithstanding that it is a very powerful organization with widespread, entrenched Egyptian roots, the Brotherhood enjoys reliable support from no more (and probably less) than a third of the country. Islamic supremacists do not win election landslides in Egypt because of the Brotherhood; the Brothers win elections because they are the best-organized Islamic supremacists in a substantially Islamic-supremacist country. Egypt is what it is not because of the Brotherhood but because of its sharia culture, ingrained after more than a millennium’s dominance by Islamic scholars and imams.
In free elections, Islamic supremacists would still win control of parliament. After all, they won by an almost four-to-one landslide only two years ago. In a presidential election, moreover, an Islamic supremacist would be elected. Recall that just last year, the transitional military government resorted to disqualifying presidential candidates on bogus grounds to try to prevent that from happening . . . but they still ended up with Morsi. The Brotherhood is now unpopular enough that Morsi would not be reelected . . . probably. But some Islamic supremacist, whether from the Brotherhood or another Islamist faction, almost certainly would. The Brothers, furthermore, would do reasonably well in parliamentary elections, even if they failed to reach the 50 percent haul of the vote that they garnered just two years ago.
So the ill-conceived “democracy” option would be a catastrophe, setting in motion a reprise of what got Egypt to the brink of failed-state status. That leaves support of the military as the only plausible alternative. Military control is the only chance for a long-term positive outcome — defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood; a technocratic government that brings a measure of stability and confronts Egypt’s profound economic crisis; the drafting of a consensus constitution that guarantees minority rights and equality of opportunity; time for democratic institutions and secular parties to take root; and an eventual return to popular elections guided by that framework. As I contended in the weekend column, though, we should not be overconfident about this scenario. Just because it is the only sensible option does not mean it has a good chance of success. This is Egypt we’re talking about.
As I’ve argued several times, for instance here and in Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, the Egyptian military is not dependable. It is our best friend out of a bad lot. Amid the dystopia, it is a comparatively stabilizing influence. But let’s not kid ourselves.
With tens of billions of dollars in aid over the past 30 years, the United States has purchased friendship at the highest echelons of Egypt’s armed forces. But that is just the highest echelons. Broadly speaking, Egypt’s military, in which a term of service by all able-bodied men is compulsory, is a reflection of Egyptian society. As we saw in polls taken while Mubarak was still in power, and as we’ve now seen in election after election after election, Egyptian society is substantially Islamic supremacist. The armed forces are thus rife with Brotherhood and Salafist operatives and sympathizers. Indeed, it is worth remembering that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was chosen by Morsi to lead the armed forces because he is known to be a sharia-adherent Muslim who seemed in sync with much of the Brotherhood’s ideology — if not, as it turned out, with the Brothers themselves.
On the Corner, Nina Shea has written movingly about the ongoing pogrom against Egypt’s Christians. And in a powerful post, David French argues that America’s lavish aid for Egypt’s military ought to be contingent not only on defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood but also on the military’s protection of besieged religious minorities, particularly the Copts. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would make all American policy in the Middle East contingent on the protection of minorities and the repeal of sharia’s other oppressive provisions — that would be more meaningful democracy promotion than the charade we’ve been pushing for the past decade.
But is it realistic in Egypt? To answer that question, I’d suggest remembering two things.