Egypt: Should We Cheer the People or Weep for Democracy?

The sanctity of the Democratic process is important, but there's an awful lot of other problems to be solved

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Amr Nabil / AP

Fireworks light the sky as opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi celebrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 3, 2013.

As you know, the Egyptian military has taken President Mohamed Morsi into custody, suspended the constitution, and installed an interim government. The army says it has taken these steps in support of the will of the people, and that does appear to be largely true. Still, Morsi and his outraged Muslim Brotherhood allies are defining these events as nothing less than a military coup and a repudiation of the democratic election that was the culmination of the ouster two years ago of Hosni Mubarak. On both these points they are certainly right.

Some Americans are understandably queasy about the slap upside the head that democracy took earlier this week. And there are certainly ample reasons to doubt that the collapse of Morsi’s rule warrants unalloyed joy. But let’s not lurch into Jimmy Carteresque “election = good” reductionism here. To do so is to deny reality.

(MORE: More Protests and Gunfire Following Morsi’s Ousting)

It is supremely disingenous for Morsi, or anyone explicitly or implicitly on his side, to lament the injury to democracy here, since he and his cohort ruled with “near-total disregard for anything other than consolidating their own power” (Daniel Pipes). They aspired throughout their brief tenure to the eventual, and permanent, installation of sharia law and the enshrinement of a “vibrant radical utopian movement” (again Pipes’s phrase). The ultimate success of that movement — the culmination of the Brotherhood’s vision — would have entailed the crushing into dust of any trace of liberal democracy and the dragging back into medieval ignominy of a country, a people, and possibly an entire region.

So don’t cry for democracy. It’ll be just fine, thank you, and it will thrive in Egypt when Egypt is ready for it. For the time being, as Jonathan Spyer has explained again and again, there are two and only two effective forces for change in this neck of the woods: Islamism and the military:

[D]espite all the chatter about peoples’ power, democracy, civil society and the rest of it, when it comes to the real, grown-up exercise of political power in the countries in question, there remain only two contenders: the forces of political Islam, and the armed forces of the ancien regime.

That this is so seems empirically irrefutable – from Algeria to Gaza, via Syria and Egypt – the forces that when the talking is done go out to do battle with one another for the crown are the Islamists and the armed men of the regime (the latter usually organized under the banner of a secular, authoritarian nationalism.)

… this basic fact of the presence of two serious contenders for power in the main countries of the Arabic speaking world has been obvious and apparent before the events of 2011, which are usually (though inaccurately) held to mark the advent of the historic processes currently being witnessed in the Middle East.

But what about the massive demonstrations, you ask? Don’t the people hunger to breathe free? Spyer:

[T]he throngs of young people that we have witnessed in recent days in the streets of Egypt are not a mirage. No more were the young civil society activists who began the uprising in Syria, or the sophisticated liberals and reformers in Egypt. What are the factors which time and time again prevent the emergence of a muscular, representative, civilian and secular politics in the Arab world?

A politics of this type, which can combine the readiness for the use of force with a commitment to the open society seems to me to be the foundation stone for workable democracy.

In my own country, Israel, it very clearly exists. The primordial call of Jewish identity is the bedrock on which the democratic structure stands and is defensible and defended. Take away the former, and the latter would soon fall too.

Now the willingness to use force in order to defend rests at root always on something ‘irrational’, ie deeper than profit-loss, self-interested thinking. It must by necessity do so, since by engagement in such activity, the individual increases the possibility of his or her own early extinction. The ‘trick’ for making the open society work and be defensible seems to me the ability to combine or harmonize this deeper, non-rational layer of human motivation with the entirely rational commitment to institutions, structures, checks, balances and so on.

In the highly populated countries of the Arab world, glaringly, this has never been achieved. The liberal reformers are quite unable to command the kind of potent loyalties by which movements sustain themselves and win. Today, in Egypt, it is not they who are the real political and military actors. The required levels of commitment exist, solely, in the hands of Islamists on the one hand, and authoritarian nationalists on the other.

It is impossible to predict which way Egypt will now go. (Some sound thinkers fear it will go in a very ugly direction indeed.) Daniel Pipes, who is “delighted” by Morsi’s overthrow, nevertheless is deeply concerned:

Egypt is a mess. Relations between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood elements have already turned violent and threaten to degenerate. Copts and Shi’ites get murdered just because of their identities. The Sinai Peninsula is anarchic. The incompetent and greedy military leadership, which viciously ruled Egypt from behind the scenes between 1952 and 2012, is back in charge.

But the worst problems are economic. Remittances from foreign workers have declined since the upheaval in neighbouring Libya. Sabotage against the pipeline sending natural gas to Israel and Jordan ended that source of income. Tourism has obviously collapsed. Inefficiencies mean that this hydrocarbon-producing country lacks the fuel to run tractors at full capacity. Socialist-era factories churn out sub-par goods.

Egypt imports an estimated 70 percent of its food and is fast running out of hard currency to pay for wheat, edible oils, and other staples. Hunger looms. Unless foreigners subsidize Egypt with tens of billions of dollars of aid a year into the indefinite future, a highly unlikely scenario, that hunger looks unavoidable. Already, poor families have cut back on their food intake.

Looming over all these dangers, the Ethiopian government exploited Egypt’s weakness a few weeks ago to begin building a dam on the Blue Nile that could entail a reduction in water being supplied to Egypt from 55 billion cubic meters to 40 billion, a move that has incalculably negative implications for life in the country known as the Gift of the Nile.

As these economic disasters hit, the year-long interlude of Islamist rule by Morsi & Co., which did so much to exacerbate these problems, may well be forgotten – and whoever inherits the rule will take the blame. In other words, the pain Egyptians have and will go through may be for naught. Who knows, they might in desperation turn again to Islamists to pull them out of their future predicament.

There’s plenty to worry about in Egypt. The sanctity of the democratic process is important, yes. But there’s an awful lot to be solved before it can rightfully be anyone’s primary concern.

Judith Levy graduated from Duke with degrees in English and History and holds a master’s in International Relations from Oxford. She was the Soref Research Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a managing editor for equity research at ABN Amro in New York, and the author of Wall Street-based mystery novel, A Falling Knife. The views expressed are solely her own. 
This article was published in partnership with Ricochet, a site that provides right-of-center podcasts, content and conversation for conservatives and libertarians.