First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Democracy in Egypt
Let's get one thing straight, right from the start. What we saw on the streets of Cairo was not democracy, not as we use the term today.
It was revolution, and it might lead to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but it might not. In historical terms, the odds are against it.
When our founding fathers spoke of democracy, it was with a shudder -- a poisonous viper, a thing to be feared. That's because to them it meant little more than "mob rule" -- the people striking down or setting up laws based on the whim of the moment.
It was the citizens of Athens, voting to have Socrates killed because he questioned everything and everybody, and they wanted to protect their certainties.
Here's why I have some optimism about the future of Egypt: The army did not step in to suppress the street demonstrations, and the army also did not kill Mubarak.
Let's think back to some recent revolutions. Think of Boris Yeltsin in front of the Congress building in Moscow in 1991. The tanks rolled in, but the leaders of the coup that had ousted Gorbachev blinked; or the army blinked; what mattered was that the machine guns did not open fire. If they had, the revolution would have ended.
Now remember Tiananmen Square. The Beijing freedom demonstrators -- much better behaved than the Egyptian mobs -- faced soldiers from the south of China, where even the language was different. The officers gave the order and the soldiers began to kill. The revolution was over.
The demonstrators take to the streets, and the nation stops. But if the rulers have the will to stay in power, and their military or police forces remain obedient to that will, then they open fire and kill the opposition.
This is what kept Communists in control in the USSR for the first fifty years, and what keeps the Communists in place in China. They were able to hold on to the loyalty and obedience of their minions: those whose obedience carries out the decisions of the rulers.
But in Russia, either the rulers had lost the stomach for killing, or they were not obeyed by their servants with guns; I don't know which. But the result was the same. Yeltsin, bravely standing before his crowd of rebels, was not shot down.
That is what happened in Cairo. Mubarak, I think, had the will to stay in power. He sent in thugs to beat people up; the people beat back. But when he gave (if he gave) the order for the army to roll in and take control of the streets, I think the army looked at this 82-year-old man and thought: Why will we kill our fellow citizens, our people, our families and friends, for him? How long will he live? What power does he have except what we give him?
Whether it was Mubarak who blinked or the army that declined to carry out his will, the result was the same: The demonstrators were not slaughtered in the street.
A people can make itself ungovernable by general strikes, by demonstrations, by riots, by mob rule. But a ruthless and unified ruling class can slaughter and starve their way to victory, as long as their military forces obey them. How long can a general strike last, if the rulers block all transportation of food, shut off the water supply, and kill anyone who takes to the streets?
It was not the demonstrators who promised democracy -- most of the people of Egypt stayed home and waited to see what would happen. Who would come in after Mubarak?
Get rid of Mubarak; will it be something worse? The Muslim Brotherhood, if once they got control of power, would not be so easy to dislodge. Their army would be officered by fellow Islamist fanatics. Of course they would open fire on any mob like this; their sense of entitlement to rule would be absolute, and their army would obey them.
That's who promises democracy in Egypt: the army. If they had been mere instruments of Mubarak's will, we would have footage of bodies on the street and nobody would be speaking any nonsense about democracy in Egypt. Instead, the army's loyalty was to their nation, not to the man who happened to stand (or totter) at its top.
But Egypt's army is strong. And there was a nation for it to be loyal to. I once sat for hours at the same table as an Egyptian military attache. I had spoken slightingly of the lack of freedom in Egypt, where there was censorship and no free elections. He passionately assured me, not that there were free elections, but that they did have institutions that assured the rule of law.
"Our courts are independent of the government," he said. "We have a long tradition of judges who follow the law and not the politics."
In the years since then, his statement has sometimes been borne out; sometimes judges have bowed to pressure. But he was right about this: Mubarak did not own the judiciary. They were not his rubber stamp. There remained public trust in some of the institutions of the state.
So there was something for the army to be loyal to -- a sense of an Egypt that was not simply Mubarak's private fiefdom. They supported him as long as he maintained stability; they supported him in blocking the Muslim Brotherhood, the murderers of the great statesman Anwar Sadat, from getting power, and supported his one-man rule as long as it seemed good for the country.
Likewise, in Turkey the army long preserved the secular government, keeping would-be religious rulers from imposing Sharia law. Only now is their control slipping; we do not know yet how far.
So because of the Egyptian army, we have hope that the mob rule that triggered the exit of Mubarak might well be replaced by a freely elected government that will safeguard the rights of the people of the largest and proudest of the "Arab" nations.
I put "Arab" in quotes because the Egyptians do not think of themselves as Arabs in the same way that Saudis and Syrians and Iraqis do. They speak Arabic now, of course. But they have a history of their own, and a deep and abiding unity; to be an Egyptian means far more to them than to be an Iraqi means to the people of Mesopotamia. Egyptians can make their own way.
So if the Egyptian army keeps to its course and uses its power to suppress the democracy-hating forces of those who would impose a Taliban or an Iranian-style totalitarian regime, then the Egyptian people, with a far greater sense of national identity than any of the other Arab peoples, and with existing institutions that can be built upon, may become the flagship of democracy and liberal government in the Arab world.
What I fear is American interference and neglect. There is already talk in American circles of putting "pressure" on the Egyptian army to make sure they rush to have free elections.
How stupid are we? Very.
The Egyptian army did not defer to us in their actions to date; they are the reason Mubarak is gone. Nor should they be stupid enough to listen to us now, and rush into elections where the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood is likely to make a strong showing.
Like the Nazis in 1932, who did not win a majority but were the largest of more than a dozen parties to win parliamentary seats, the Muslim Brotherhood will probably never be the choice of a majority of the Egyptian people.
But the Nazis, once they were admitted into government at all -- once they had control of some ministries and departments -- would never surrender their grip on power.
The comparison between Nazis and Islamicists is apt. They are, despite the trappings of religion, the same movement: Reactionary, enraged, eager to seize control of government in order to impose perfect order (as defined by them) and expel all evil from the nations they control -- evil being defined as Jews, Christians, and any Western influence.
"Free elections" should never be defined as requiring that parties dedicated to the destruction of democracy should be allowed to take part. Democracy is not a suicide pact. Islamicist "parties" believe in "one man, one vote, one time," as the saying goes. Once they get a toehold on power, they will never let it go.
If the Muslim Brotherhood ever gets control, the army will be purged and from then on will be perfectly loyal to the Sharia-Nazi government. Any future street demonstrations will result in slaughter, not revolution.
From our lofty position thousands of miles away, please let us not start pressuring the Egyptian army to behave in ways that will lead to dictatorship far worse than Mubarak's -- totalitarian rather than authoritarian government.
And one more point: Russia has a dictator today (though only an authoritarian one, so far) in part because, while we had all kinds of advice for Russia after the fall of the Communists in 1991 -- most of it irrelevant or bad -- we had no actual help for them.
Their economy collapsed. Because their shoddy goods could not compete on the open market, factories became valueless; jobs vanished. What Russia needed was capital for retooling, economic help through the transition. What it got was corruption, crime, poverty, and sanctimonious lectures from the free marketeers of the International Monetary Fund, who impose on other nations a standard of unregulated, unmitigated free markets that we in the West have protected ourselves against for a century.
The result was that Russians lost faith in democracy, because it left them much worse off than Communism had (in living memory, anyway). They now support Putin's seizure of their rights and his reinstatement of more and more aspects of the police state, because it reminds them of the good old days.
Can't we please learn a lesson from our own stupidities of the past? In the absence of Mubarak's corrupt but predictable government, criminals and Islamicists will move in to exploit the authority gap.
Instead of pressuring the army, we need to move in and prove the Islamicists wrong about us. Prove that we don't "care only about Israel," but instead invest heavily in infrastructure to help Egypt prosper. Help them to see immediate improvements because they are moving toward democracy and because America cares about them.
Much -- most? -- of our emergency aid to Haiti has been siphoned off through corruption. But in Egypt, if we cooperate with the Army, we have a chance of getting our money and expertise into the economy in beneficial ways.
Sadly, our present regime has neither an understanding of democracy nor a clue about how economies work. It is Egypt's misfortune that they are making their play for democratic government at precisely the time when America is least competent to help.
And if the American Left has no ideas other than throwing borrowed money at a problem, the American Right is almost as dumb; Adam Smith's invisible hand works best when there are strict regulations protecting the people from ruinous collapse.
In short, Physician, heal thyself. Before we try to tell Egypt what to do, maybe we should get our own house in order.
The most important thing we can do for Egypt is leave the army alone. If a new strong man emerges and it turns out that we've replaced Mubarak with a clone, then that's sad. But if "democracy" leads to totalitarian Islamo-Nazi rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, then that is a terrible tragedy.
Likewise, if Afghanistan is left with a corrupt and incompetent regime, that's sad; but if it is left with the Taliban again, that would be a tragedy; we will eventually have to do the same job all over again. Our premature withdrawal from Iraq will be even more disastrous; a power vacuum there will be filled, and in all likelihood everyone who trusted in us will end up dead.
Who will depend on us? Who can depend on us, when we have a President who has contempt for the plans and promises made by his predecessors; who has no understanding of the history of other nations or the forces at play within them; who thinks he's smart and therefore remains ignorant of his own ignorance?
And Congress is no better -- even if there are individuals there with some idea of how the world works, they are overwhelmed by the many who have an eye only for a narrow ideology (Left or Right or Populist) or to the next election.
With Egypt we have an opportunity to transform our relationship with the Arab world. We did not invade Egypt to topple a bad regime; the new regime, whatever it is, will have legitimacy in the Arab world that no Iraqi regime can possibly have.
Our role should be to support the Egyptian army in creating a version of democracy that will protect Egyptian secular democracy: In other words, we should not interfere in the direction of giving Nazi-Islamicists a toehold on power. And we should use a tiny portion of our remaining economic might to show the Egyptian people that:
1. We care about Egypt as much as we care about Israel, and want the Egyptian nation to achieve its great potential.
2. We respect Egyptian sovereignty and have no intention of bossing them around.
3. We don't want to transform Egypt into America; we want them to find their own way to blend their religion and the rights of men and women within a stable government that can keep the peace.
If we can approach them with that attitude, then maybe what emerges from the present turmoil will be a foundation for peaceful friendship among nations in the Middle East, and a hope for ridding the world of the scourge of Islamo-Nazism, without even a hint of American neo-imperialism.
If only I had a mustard-seed's-worth of faith that anyone in our government had a clue about how to accomplish it.
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