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America Looks at Egypt and Sees Itself



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Furious editorials demanding an immediate cutoff of aid to Egypt in both the New York Times and the Washington Post tell the tale. We still don’t get it. These papers, like the rest of America’s establishment, have learned nothing from our misplaced optimism about the Arab Spring. There were never any true liberals in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was never moderate. The revolts were driven by economic failure, not a craving for democracy. Democracy failed because nobody in Egypt truly understood or wanted it to begin with.

Nobody talks about the Middle East’s social system, not only Islam and its sectarian divisions, but the patterns of tribe and kin that govern so much of life in this part of the world. Political events in the Middle East cannot be understood in isolation from the fundamentals of social life. Yet in our “multicultural” age, taking culture seriously as something that can influence politics or block political and economic modernization is now taboo.

This leaves us naively hoping for a Middle Eastern future modeled on our own hugely different social assumptions. Not content to simply long for a “democratic transition,” we actually assume that one is taking place, even as events before our eyes disprove this fantasy at every stage. One man, one vote, one time. It happened in front of us, yet we refused to see it. Egypt’s secularists and military did see what was happening and took action. They weren’t democrats either, but at least they understood their opponents.

No peace without including the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents so much of Egypt? Quite right. No peace. What this argument fails to recognize is that the image of a national reconciliation that encompasses all parties in Egypt — the goal the Times and the Post want us to work toward –- is a chimera. The minimum consensus on social fundamentals necessary for democracy to function is simply not present in Egypt, and there is no reasonable prospect that it will be any time soon.

Play out scenarios of a “democratic transition” in Egypt in any serious way and you will see that the solution America’s right-thinking establishment is working toward in Egypt is no solution at all. (I’ll have more to say about this in the forthcoming issue of The Claremont Review of Books.)

What we ought to be doing now is tending to America’s key interests and giving up ill-founded fantasies of liberal democracy in a still thoroughly illiberal region. In any case, Times and Post notwithstanding, our capacity to influence events in Egypt is fast disappearing. With their literal and political survival at stake, the actors on the ground are no longer much subject to what we have to say. The Gulf states are giving more money than we are, and they want the Brotherhood crushed. So whether the military stabilizes Egypt or we get a civil war, it’s now largely out of our hands. The best we can do is keep the treaty with Israel intact and the Suez Canal open and secure.



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