It’s sometimes said that governing post-Mubarak Egypt is like drinking from a poisoned chalice. The economy is in free-fall. Policing has been virtually non-existent since the revolution. For all the Muslim Brotherhood’s mistakes, it’s questionable that any government could have pulled Egypt back from the brink over these past two and-a-half years. Whatever de facto control the army intends to exercise now, it’s anxious to avoid the appearance of day-to-day governing, lest it be blamed for the economic meltdown sure to come.
So who’s left to take the blame for Egypt’s fast-moving social collapse? How about us? Anyway, that’s what we’ll get if we cut off military aid, as the champions of (illiberal) democratization are now demanding.
Let’s say the United States cuts off aid to Egypt. To get it back, the Egyptian army quickly supervises a series of elections for a revised constitution, parliament, and president, in a way that meets with American approval. What then? We’re seen as responsible for Egypt’s fate, that’s what.
All sides in Egypt are prone to blame the United States. The secular parties blame Obama for backing the Brotherhood, while the Brotherhood blames Obama for failing to stop the army. That’s just garden-variety Egyptian political rhetoric doubling as pressure on the United States to undercut the opposing faction. But what would happen if America took open and dramatic action to force the military’s hand? At that point, we truly would be implicated in whatever came out of the new “democratic” process.
Imagine the possibilities. The Islamists win again, and we get the blame from many of our allies — and from many Americans — who would rightly view that outcome as a disaster. Or perhaps the coalition of anti-American nationalists and hard-leftists that make up what we call the “secular” parties takes power. Either way, we’ve put bitterly anti-American and anti-Israel politicians in control. And when the economy crashes on whoever’s watch it then becomes, we get the blame.
Once we grasp for de facto ownership of Egypt’s “democratic” process, the threat of total economic collapse will generate enormous pressure for an American bailout, the tab for which would be about $20 billion a year over and above our current $1.5 billion in aid.
Does a mere call for the Egyptian army to set a timetable for elections give us ownership of the subsequent “democratic” process? To a substantial degree, it does. An aid cut-off in the current crisis would generate huge attention here, in Egypt, and internationally.
Precisely because Egypt is on the brink economically, the military might have little choice but to dance to America’s tune. The whole point of cutting off aid would be to force the military to give up more power more quickly than it otherwise would have. Although the results of subsequent elections would be determined by Egypt’s voters, to a large degree the final outcome will be laid at America’s door. Some of that blame would be justified and some not, but after all the fuss generated by the aid cut-off, the distinction wouldn’t matter much.
In any case, there can be no good outcome, because none of the possible electoral victors are the democrats we imagine them to be. Nor will they be made so by elections alone.
There never really was an Arab Spring, only a slow-motion social unraveling that’s been playing out for decades. To acknowledge this is to recognize that the misnamed and misconceived freedom agenda in the Middle East has just about run its course. Holding aid to Egypt hostage to de facto American control of a new electoral process simply puts this country on the hook for the immense amount of trouble to come. Yet our “democratizers” would rather America take effective control of a collapsing Egypt than to admit that some societies simply aren’t interested in or “ready for” authentic liberal democracy. That will trap us in a massive new quagmire.
The current impasse in Egypt could very well devolve into chronic instability or civil war. The democratizers rightly fear that, but suspending aid won’t prevent it. It will simply put America on the hook for the chaos to come – unless we want to pony up another $20 billion a year. Unfortunately, even that wouldn’t solve the problem.
Egypt can’t democratize because none of the major players are liberal democrats. The Middle East’s traditional social system is decidedly resistant to modernization, and elections won’t change that. In any case, the secularists and the Islamists are so far apart in their basic outlook that trust is impossible between them. That’s what really brought Morsi down. The new government can’t even decide whether ElBaradei is prime minister or not, and now there may be clashes because of it.
Do we really want ownership of this process? Do we really want to drink from the poisoned chalice?