Conservatives have been chastised in some quarters over the past week for their lack of enthusiasm for the “revolution” in Egypt. “Fear and loathing — of Muslims especially — rules the Right,” declared John Guardiano, on the FrumForum. “Within some conservative precincts,” chided Commentary’s Peter Wehner, “there has been reluctance even to share in the aspirations of the Egyptian people.” Paul Wolfowitz has been utterly unambivalent: “I think it’s a terrific vindication for the Egyptian people. . . . And the people who said for years that somehow Arabs didn’t care about freedom are just dead wrong.”
On behalf of skeptical conservatives everywhere, here are two cheers for the Egyptian revolution. (1) The protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere might so easily have resorted to violence when their demands that Mubarak leave went unmet. They might have marched on the presidential palace and initiated a blood bath. They refrained. Through days upon days of demonstrations — running short on essentials and withstanding the rain and wind — they kept their vigil almost entirely peaceful. (2) Since Mubarak’s ouster, there have been few calls for revenge or witch-hunts.
There is a good deal to admire about the way Egyptians have behaved during this tumultuous time. But there are also good and sufficient reasons to keep our enthusiasm corked for now.
Egypt has exchanged a dictator propped up by the military for a straight military dictatorship. Yes, that is about the best short-term outcome that could have been achieved given the nature of Egyptian society (no working political parties, no genuine parliament, a controlled press, weak protection of property rights, lack of an independent judiciary). Power could not very well have been handed over to the protesters in Tahrir Square. Someone has to keep order.
But if the protesters in Egypt desire real freedom and democracy, as Paul Wolfowitz and others are sure they do, the military will have to cede power. It is far from clear that they will be willing to do so. ProPublica reports that “estimates vary as to how much of the Egyptian economy is run by the military — ranging from 5 percent to 40 percent . . . military-owned companies, often run by retired generals, are particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hotel and gasoline industries. . . . The commercial revenue has proved lucrative, and helped top military officers maintain a kind of lifestyle that includes an extensive network of luxurious social clubs as well as comfortable retirements — all of which helps ensure officer loyalty.”
Bloomberg News reports that “upon retirement, senior officers are given hefty retirement packages and appointed as provincial governors or heads of municipalities.” A State Department cable described the military as hostile to economic reforms, explaining that the generals view privatization efforts “as a threat to [their] economic position.”
We know what we want for the Egyptian people — political freedom, respect for individual rights, economic liberty, religious freedom, and peace. But there is a great deal of doubt that Egyptians know that this is what we want for them — did we not support Mubarak for 30 years? Also, there is considerable uncertainty that this is what they want for themselves — or that the protests that ousted Mubarak will bring them closer to achieving their goals.
It’s hard to know with anything approaching certainty what the American people want, so caution is advisable when interpreting another society. We don’t know whether polling is accurate in Egypt, and in any case polling is an inexact science. With those caveats registered, some of the following findings should give pause to those who are prematurely proclaiming that Egypt’s revolution represents, as President Obama put it, “a bend” in “the arc of history toward justice.”
A 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 64 percent of Egyptians have favorable views of the Muslim Brotherhood, 75 percent agree with the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea that a body of religious scholars should have veto power over laws it believes contravene the Koran. Only 36 percent said a non-Muslim should be able to run for president.
A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that only 31 percent of Egyptians perceived a struggle between fundamentalists and modernizers in their country. Among that 31 percent, 59 percent identified with the fundamentalists and 27 percent with the modernizers. On the other hand, 30 percent were “very concerned” and 40 percent “somewhat concerned” about Islamic extremism in their country. Among seven majority-Muslim countries, Egypt was second to the bottom in the number of respondents who said “democracy is preferable to any other form of government,” with 59 percent agreeing.
Finally, the nation best equipped to help Egypt navigate toward free institutions — the U.S. — is viewed most unfavorably by average Egyptians because of our relationship with Mubarak.
The arc hasn’t bent yet — and it may not bend toward justice at all.