The Corner

Not a Liberal Revolution

Jonah, my short-term scenario isn’t so different from yours. I gave it at the end of my post on Obama and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood will play a significant role, but will also be balanced by the army and, I hope, American pressure. I am not optimistic, but I do see a struggle and uncertainty for a time. What I did in response to Duncan’s great post was to accept Gerecht’s own scenario at face value. If things play out as even Gerecht seems to think they will, that would be a disaster, and it would be very much less than a liberal democracy.

Can Obama keep the Muslim Brotherhood out? Maybe not, but he can try to minimize their influence by emphasizing that he sees them differently than other forces in Egypt. Better yet, he can stay quiet on the subject for now and press the army behind the scenes to keep the Brotherhood in check in any new arrangement that is developed. To send out a positive signal on the Muslim Brotherhood this clearly and this early is a bad idea. I understand that it is an effort to get on the side of the protesters so that America is seen as a friend to the new regime that Obama obviously sees as inevitable (new, not just because Mubarak will be gone, but because it will be composed of a fundamentally different coalition of forces). Even so, I think the costs of the move are too high.

Fundamentally, Obama is presented with a choice between trying to preserve a regime similar to the current one, anchored in the army, and with a somewhat more reformist aspect, or to quickly move to full electoral democracy. He seems to have gone with the latter option, and I think that’s a mistake.

I am concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood, not because they are brilliant manipulators or irresistible tacticians, but because they are vastly closer to the Egyptian masses than the student demonstrators. Everybody says the Muslim Brotherhood is better organized, as if it was just a question of organizational skill. But why are they better organized than everyone else? It’s because Islamism speaks to the needs of the modern Arab public. The unemployed and impoverished Egyptians who are joining the student protesters are less concerned about democracy than about their declining economic well-being. They have been fed on a diet of virulently anti-American rhetoric, often sponsored by the Mubarak regime itself. They take the morals and mores of Islamic social life for granted. If they become politicized, they are far more likely to move in an Islamist, or perhaps Arab nationalist direction than toward liberal democracy.

Successful democratic change like we saw in, say, South Korea, is based on the slow development of a substantial middle class with liberal mores. What’s brought Mubarak down is not the middle class thirst for democracy, but massive unemployment, corruption, and inflation, in a system whose traditional roots have long blocked modernization. This is not a scenario for successful democratization. Everywhere we’ve seen to date, it is a scenario for expanding Islamism. Gerecht himself seems to think that’s what we’re in for quite some long time. I fear he’s right.


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