My Two Cents on Egypt

What can I possibly add to the torrent of words, videos, tweets, and blogs that have proliferated since the coup in Cairo? Not much, I fear. But for what it may be worth, here's what has been going through my mind since the Egyptian Army stepped in and seized power last week.

First, we still have no idea where Egypt is headed, especially in light of the violence that broke out in the last 24 hours. As Simon Schama noted in the Financial Times, revolutionary upheavals tend to be long, drawn-out affairs with many unexpected twists and turns. The French Revolution proceeded through several distinct phases and abortive constitutions before culminating in Napoleon's coup d'état of 18 Brumaire. The Russian Revolution was equally turbulent, and the Bolsheviks' triumph was never preordained and the resulting Soviet Union did not emerge in its final Stalinist form for years after the storming of the Winter Palace.

Or consider events closer to home. The survival of "these United States" was hardly inevitable following victory in the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution that Americans now venerate wasn't even in place until more than a decade after 1776. As the early republic struggled, I can just imagine a bigoted 18th-century English version of David Brooks sneering that the former colonists lacked the "mental equipment" for self-government. 

So the first and most important point is the need for patience; this isn't going to get resolved in a week or a month or even a year.

Second, for all the failings of the Muslim Brotherhood in its first experience in office, no one should be pleased by what is now transpiring in Egypt. Under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, the Egyptian military presided over decades of economic and social stagnation and rampant corruption, not to mention torture and widespread human rights abuses. There's no reason to believe the generals know how to restore Egypt's cratering economy or unite its fractious political factions, which is why they were reluctant to take a leading role and will try to turn power back to civilians (at least symbolically) as soon as they can.

But the recent turn toward violence is especially ominous, as it heralds the possibility of a civil war in a country of some 80 million. We are not there yet, but trends are in the wrong direction.

To repeat my first point, the struggle to create a legitimate, pluralist, and minimally competent government in Egypt has a long, long way to go.

Third, Americans should take a deep breath and recognize that Washington's ability to influence these events will be extremely limited. If Egypt's own people do not know where they are headed, if violence escalates, and if none of the contending forces are fully in control, then it would be folly for outsiders to think they can safely steer these events from afar. Moreover, given America's past support for Hosni Mubarak and the widespread Egyptian belief that "Mother America" is secretly pulling strings, any sort of heavy-handed U.S. interference is as likely to backfire as to succeed. If ever a set of events called for "benevolent neglect" and keeping one's distance, this is it.

Fourth, the good news, such as it is, is that vital U.S. interests are not really engaged here. I know that sounds like a radical statement, but it really isn't. Egypt is not a great power or a major oil producer, and there is no remotely plausible path by which the outcome in Egypt would make Americans substantially poorer or less secure at home. The United States would like to see the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survive, of course, but even the worst Egypt you can imagine would be no match for heavily armed and well-trained Israelis, who beat Egypt soundly every time they fought in the past, and usually under less favorable conditions. Israel has a powerful nuclear deterrent to boot. An end to the peace treaty would not be a good thing, but it is not an existential threat to Israel and still less to the United States.

Indeed, given Egypt's parlous economic condition, whatever sort of government eventually emerges will be in no position to make regional waves. It will be in desperate need of trade, investment, and tourism for many years to come, and it will need good relations with as many countries as possible. Whether governed by the Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or some sort of coalition, it will pose little threat to any of its neighbors or to key U.S. interests.

Finally, I continue to believe that the Arab Spring is a watershed from which there is no turning back. I could be wrong -- the revolutions of 1848 ultimately fizzled -- but I do not think the Arab world can or will remain aloof from the broader global trend toward more participatory government. The road will be bumpy, contingent, and uncertain, and there is no guarantee that Western-style liberal democracy will be the end result. But I am still convinced that future Arab governments will be far more sensitive to popular sentiment than most of their predecessors were and that this development will eventually be a positive one.

Just not anytime soon.

-/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Independence Day Greetings to Edward Snowden

Every year on the Fourth of July I sit down and read the Declaration of Independence. It's a habit I got into some years ago, but I take a peculiar pleasure in reading through the founding principles of the American Revolution, archaic language and all. In these days of creeping executive power, supine journalism, and reflexive threat-inflation, it's a valuable reminder that governments exist to serve the people -- and not the other way around.

On this Independence Day, I am wondering what the Founding Fathers would have made of Edward Snowden. The question is obviously a bit absurd, as they could hardly have imagined something like the Internet, or even the telephone, back in 1776. But they would have understood the ability of a government to seize the mail and to investigate and harass those suspected of disloyalty. And they surely would have understood the concept of risking one's future for the sake of one's ideals.

It is of course possible that they would have seen Snowden as some members of Congress do, as a man who betrayed his country by releasing classified information. But isn't it also possible that they would have seen in him a kindred spirit -- someone who took an irrevocable step on a matter of principle? In particular, they might have seen in him a man who recognized the natural tendency of governments to extend their control over citizens, usually in the name of national security.

Let us not forget that the Founding Fathers repeatedly warned about the dangers of standing armies, which they rightly understood to be a perennial threat to liberty. Or that James Madison famously warned that no nation can remain free in a state of perpetual warfare, a sentiment that Barack Obama recently quoted but does not seem to have fully taken to heart. The Founders also gave Americans the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they understood that defending individual privacy against the grasp of government authority is an essential human right as well as an important safeguard of freedom.

The United States can no longer protect the country's security with a citizen militia, of course, and a permanent defense establishment has become a necessary evil in the competitive world of contemporary international politics. But the Snowden affair reminds us that large and well-funded government bureaucracies have a powerful tendency to expand, to hide their activities behind walls of secrecy, and to depend on a cowed and co-opted populace to look the other way.

Snowden may have broken the law, but so did the Founding Fathers when they issued that famous declaration 237 years ago. They did so in defiance of a powerful empire, just as Snowden did. The world is better off that they chose to defy the laws of their time, and Snowden's idealistic act may leave us better off too. I suspect Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the rest of those revolutionaries might have understood.