Thoughts on Egypt and the Arab Spring: Freedom Requires Hope

This morning, the world pundits are going mad, and I appear to be the only person out there who is both closely following the situation, and viewing it with anything resembling calm.  From White House high-fives to conservative commentariat doom-and-gloomism.  Mainstream Beltway sources like the WaPo now consider the Arab Spring to have “failed”:  everyone I’ve spoken to seems to be divided over what the election of a Salafist (“Moderate Muslim Extremist”) to the Presidency of Egypt mean for the world.

Sometimes I think I’m the only person following this mess who seems to be thinking about what it means for the Egyptians.  I think the election is hugely significant, and I can sum it up in one word:


Let every criticism of the Egyptian Salafists stand.  No, they’re not nice people.  Yes, they aid and abet the slaughter of Christians on a regular basis.  No, they do not believe in “human rights” in any form that the secular west (or even the Christian West, with its “render unto Caesar” history of separating government from religion) recognizes.  Yes, the political ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood will, in fact, be just horrible for Egyptian tourism, starving it of badly-needed dollars — this in a country where huge sements of the population is on food aid to survive at the same time as  its fiscal reserves continue to implode.

Grant all of that.  Grant the many, many abuses of the SCAF while we’re at it, too:  Egypt’s regime is repressive, and has a history of engaging in, abetting, or turning a blind eye to, some truly appalling things.  Egypt is not a nice place right now.  Christians are killed regularly.  Freedoms most westerners take for granted don’t exist.  And the way Egyptian men casually victimize women, it’s certainly no place I would ever bring my wife or daughter.  Michael Totten is right: a country which brutally victimizes women and then blames the woman for daring to be brutalized is no place to be with two X chromosomes.  That happens with the SCAF in power.  These things don’t happen because the Muslim Brotherhood ran for parliament and the Presidency.  They happen because Egyptians….are Egyptians.  This is who the majority of Egyptians are and what the majority of Egyptians do.  Culture counts.

One of these is not the cure for the other.  Egypt, like much of the Middle East, is caught in a vicious cycle, swinging pendulum-like between Tyranny and Radicalism.  So long as political violence answers questions, only the extremes can survive politically.  As the secular democrats in Egypt discovered, they may be popular with the West, but their voices never penetrated meaningfully to the average Egyptian.

President Morsi will face some huge obstacles.  I’m honestly and truly glad that I’m not him.  And worse than that, radicals, muslim or secular, Venezuelan or Somali, time and again demonstrate that they are very, very poor at solving the basic problems of good governance, without which there can be no progress.

So the choice before the public isn’t “do we get tyranny or do we get freedom?”  That’s the NYT/WaPo/Guardian narrative. Freedom for Egyptians is not on the table: not while the average Egyptian is functionally illiterate and earns less than $2 a day while global currency devaluation consistently jacks up the price of wheat (nota bene, SCAF’s solution to this problem has been simply to plunder the public treasury even faster, so its officers have the money to escape when the bill finally comes due).  Instead, the question is “should the Muslim Brotherhood be given a chance to fail, or would we rather continue to submit ourselves to the army’s failure, corruption, and mis-management?”

As we see, Egypt’s military establishment is discredited.  Only widespread fear at the prospect of Morsi’s election drove so many people into SCAF’s arms.  If the Muslim Brotherhood delivers — great!  Good for the world, and good for those Egyptians who would otherwise starve.  “Delivering,” of course, will fundamentally mean engaging in some pretty moderate behaviors: a nation dependent on tourists cannot survive by scaring said tourists away, no matter how many fiscal promises the Saudis make.  An Muslim Brotherhood-led government marked by sectarian murder after sectarian murder in the headlines spells economic doom for Egypt.

If they fail to deliver, then the radicals, like the tyrants, will be discredited.  And just as in many other places where the radicals have been discredited lately, the response will tend towards finding more-moderate voices who can at least keep the sewers from backing up.  Or….maybe not.  Maybe another Nasser-like military boot will come crashing down upon the Egyptians, to spoil yet another generation.

We don’t know.  That’s up to the Egyptians.  But I wish them well, and look on the Arab Spring with guarded optimism.  Because SCAF is a dead end.  As bad as things look for Egypt right now (and they look pretty darned grim), there’s no hope at all without giving the choice of the people (however distasteful that choice is to westerners) a chance to fail.

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  1. Too early for any kind of full judgment, but Morsi’s initial picks MIGHT suggest he’s looking to Lebanon as a model:


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