What's happening throughout the Middle East isn't really surprising. Mideast experts had long been aware of the strains that these societies are under: stagnant economies, widespread corruption, massive youth bulges, faded political ideologies, and the rise of various dissident movements -- all of them held in check by brutal police states. U.S. and other leaders rightly worried about what might happen if the old order began to collapse, and mostly they hoped that this would take place on someone else's watch.
When the Arab Spring first started, many people hoped it would shake the Arab world out of its torpor and eventually produce more just, open, and efficient societies. That might still happen -- eventually -- but it is going to take a very long time and it's going to be a bumpy ride. That shouldn't surprise us either: The emergence of modern democracy in Western Europe and the United States took centuries and was punctuated by contentious and bloody politics throughout. Remember the French Revolution? The Whiskey Rebellion? European fascism? The American Civil War? One may hope that the Arab world traverses this terrain more quickly than the West did, but there's little reason to think that it will or that it will end up in the same place.
I don't pretend to be expert on the domestic politics of these societies; for valuable commentary from some people who are, see Juan Cole, Marc Lynch, and Issandr El Amrani, among others. But here are some initial thoughts on the latest events.
For starters, what is happening in Egypt today is the triumph of stupidity. First Hosni Mubarak, who had clearly lost touch with the country by the time he was driven from power. Then Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, who had the opportunity to rule after decades in opposition and blew it, big time. Instead of building a political order in which power was shared among the various groups and factions in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to run roughshod over its opponents, in a heavy-handed power grab that alarmed everyone else and brought the military back into the field. And now the generals are back and trying to suppress the Brotherhood and other opponents with brutal force. That's dumb too, because the Brotherhood is well organized, has deep roots in Egyptian society, and has been around for decades.
The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics: Those in power today can't ignore the rest of society or try to rig the game to keep themselves in power forever. (BTW: This is a lesson that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey might heed as well). If that doesn't happen, then I fear Egypt is headed down the same dark road that Algeria traveled in the 1990s and that Syria is already on today.
What should the United States do? Not much. I'm certainly with those -- like FP's Marc Lynch -- who are calling for the United States to cease all military aid to Egypt. I actually recommended this several weeks ago, in part because Egypt doesn't need more weapons and in part because it does the United States no good to be associated with yet another military crackdown. And oh yeah: Ending aid after the July coup would also have been consistent with U.S. law. Aid to Egypt's military isn't buying the United States any leverage and U.S. aid is dwarfed by the funds that the Gulf Arab states are pouring in. If they want to double down on a bankrupt order, fine; but there's no reason for the American taxpayer to do the same.
More importantly, there isn't much the United States can do. The country lost any moral authority it might have had years ago, when it backed Arab dictators, turned a blind eye to Israel's predations, and showed a callous disregard for Arab populations in places like Iraq. Nor does the United States know how to manipulate or guide Egypt's internal politics. If the Egyptians can't figure out how to construct a workable polity, do you think national security advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry could? And because a narrative of Western interference is a key element of jihadi ideology, the last thing the United States should do is intervene with military force or try to tell Egyptians how to run their own country.
The good news -- such as it is -- is that U.S. "vital interests" are not really engaged here. I know Americans like to think that everything that happens everywhere is a direct threat to American security, but this is another one of those cases where the actual U.S. interest is modest. We have every reason to prefer an Egypt that is stable, prosperous, friendly, supportive of human rights, and at peace with Israel. But Egypt has been none of those things at various points over the past 50 years, and somehow the United States managed to survive and prosper anyway. Yes, what happens in Egypt could affect Israel's security in a modest way, but Egypt is too weak to be an "existential threat" to Israel and Israel isn't the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).
Lastly, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. government is basically out of its depth here and has been for some time. Bill Clinton's administration helped put the United States in al Qaeda's cross-hairs through its policy of "dual containment" and its bungling of the Oslo peace process. George W. Bush's administration made things worse by invading Iraq and promoting a policy of "regional transformation." And Barack Obama seemed to think that all he needed to do in the Middle East was give a few speeches and rely on the same discredited diplomats who were responsible for most of the previous failures. It is Obama's misfortune to be president when these long-simmering problems finally came back to haunt us, but the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time.