No sooner do you write something you think may be definitive in terms of expressing your views about a particular Middle Eastern country, than circumstances change radically and you must revise your thinking entirely.
A few days ago, I delivered a talk here in Seattle on the Syrian Revolution which I thought presented my views succinctly. Then I read two articles about the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad that made me radically rethink my view of that situation. It seems there are animals on both sides of that conflict. The only thing I still feel certain of is that western intervention especially U.S. intervention will be very bad for Syria (as is Iranian and Russian intervention on Assad’s behalf).
Similarly, I wrote a post only two days ago expressing restrained optimism about the protests against Egypt’s Pres. Morsi. I thought they might bode well for the maturing of the democratic instinct in national politics. The protests brought to mind the Filipino People Power rallies by those who eventually toppled Ferdinand Marcos.
What I didn’t bargain for was military intervention. While Egyptians may be ecstatic with today’s developments, a military coup is not the way to reinforce democratic values. There can be no doubt that Morsi was a disastrous leader and that the Muslim Brotherhood was ill-suited to move from being an underground dissident force to a ruling party. There is also no doubt that the country’s Islamist leaders were intolerable and the nation faced increasingly severe economic and political problems.
But the military is not the guarantor of democracy. The military throughout the world takes power for itself when there is a vacuum. I’m not saying Egypt’s armed forces plan to take power themselves. But once they intervene as they have tonight (even if it’s for a cause the majority of the country believes in), they will intervene again. But next time they may not have the overwhelming support of the nation. Next time, they may topple a truly democratic leader who seeks to rein in their perks, privileges, and business empire. Here is today’s NYT on the subject:
Mr. Morsi, like his immediate predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, discovered the enduring fact that the military looks out for itself above all else. It is not ideological, but is intensely politicized. “Egypt’s military leaders are not ideologically committed to one thing or the other; they believe in their place in the political order,” said Steven A. Cook…
“The liberals and the revolutionaries are too quick to hop into bed with the military — it is not their friend,” said Mr. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The most important thing from the military’s perspective is preserving its place as the locus of power and influence in the system.”
While justifying its intervention in politics as serving the will of the people, the military has never been a force for democracy. It has one primary objective, analysts said: preserving national stability and its untouchable realm of privilege within the Egyptian state.
…For decades…its tens of thousands of elite officers have jealously guarded their privileged station. They live as a class apart, with their own social clubs, hotels, hospitals, parks and other benefits financed by the state.
Many have also grown wealthy through government contracts and business deals facilitated by their positions. It is, in some respects, a hereditary Brahmin caste, in which sons follows their fathers’ careers and they all live inside a closed social circle.
Every future leader of Egypt, whether inept or visionary, will have to confront the fact that he may not rankle the army or it will repeat what it did today. That means the army ultimately has veto power, especially over issues that directly concern it. That, in turn is not a real democracy. The only way for Egypt to fully flower is eventually to rein in the military so that is subservient to the people rather than a parallel force.
I’m also concerned that the army has arrested Morsi and 35 of the Brotherhood’s top leaders. While I can understand the concern that its supporters might try to wage a violent campaign against whoever ultimately takes power, you don’t arrest your political opponents. You persuade your fellow citizens of the power of your ideas at the ballot box.
I read an interesting article last night that said that the straw that broke the camel’s back for the military was Pres. Morsi’s call for violent jihad against the Assad regime. In his speech, he said it was the duty of all good Muslims (read, Sunnis) to wage war against the Alawite-Shiite forces. The implication was that Egypt’s army should also join the fight. The response by the military’s leaders was sharp. They correctly noted their job was to protect Egypt, not to adventure into foreign lands.
Israel’s leaders are sittin’ pretty with today’s developments. As any good politician will tell you, when your opponent is imploding just sit back and watch. Israel, of course, can’t restrain itself. That’s why it’s leaders crow about the overthrow of the Morsi government. Disarray in the most powerful frontline state is good for Israel. It means there can be no pressure for it to deal with Gaza or Hamas. It means the likelihood of a more secular, “moderate” (whatever that means) party taking power is greater. But Israel’s leaders are guilty of thinking in hide-bound clichés. Islamist=Bad. Secularist=Good.
That’s not the way the Middle East works. In truth, we don’t know what will follow Morsi or the Brotherhood. It may be a relative moderate like Mohammed el-Baradei; or it may be a general in civilian clothing. Whoever it is, Israel, by its own actions, has guaranteed that no Egyptian leader can take a soft approach to bilateral relations. Even the most quiescent leader is going to have to take a hardline on Israel.
Israel, on the other hand, believes that its own behavior has no bearing on how it’s perceived in the region. It looks at the frontline states in a unidimensional manner. They hate us. Let’s just wait for someone better to come along who hates us less.
Finally, what Israeli political leaders forget is that a true Egyptian democracy might impact Israeli politics in unforeseen and disturbing ways. Imagine a visionary leader who would set Egypt on the road to long-term stability, economic growth, and democracy. Such a leader would offer Israelis a vision of an Arab state that might run rings around Israel because it, unlike Israel, would’ve truly embraced ethnic tolerance and diversity.
Admittedly, this is a development that won’t happen overnight. The Middle East isn’t going to turn into a George Bush democratic fantasy based on one Egyptian military coup. But as I wrote in the post I referred to above, the region is moving slowly (in some places more slowly than others), deliberately and inexorably toward what I called an arc of justice.
Many may doubt this view. But if you looked at Latin America from the 1950s through the 1980s, it seemed a subcontinent ruled by caudillos, juntas, and strong men. There were few models for democracy there. But eventually the tide turned away from the generals in dark glasses and toward civilian governments determined by the will of the people.
Something like this will happen in the Middle East. When it does, Israel is liable to be left in the dust. IT will be exposed for the half-baked democracy it is.