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
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
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.