July 9, 2013
Democracy for Egypt? Come back in twenty years…
Let's try to make it simple:
For both the US and Israel, the most convenient situation in the inconvenience that is current day Egypt is the military remaining in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future as well. Alas, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less it is possible for the US to retain the legitimacy of holding such a cynical position (Israel doesn't need to talk about such things, and has surprisingly been able to keep its mouth shut thus far). In other words (but still keeping it simple): policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure this pretense doesn't end up hurting the military. Thus, on Monday the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for the restoration of democracy.
Now the longer version:
Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt- they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country – but they don't think any of it as feasible at this point in time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to gradually attempt to pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, give it back to the "people", contingent on the "people" becoming a transformed "people": more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to sending each-other flying off roof-tops or to using guns when they try to make a political point.
Egypt is a place where illiteracy is rampant, where unemployment is vast, where a majority holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the "camps" – supposedly a 'traditional' one and a more 'liberal' one – competing for dominance, a healthy proposal would be to also look at the numbers each camp consists of, and at the prospect of both of them peacefully living with each other and trying to convince each other by having a civilized and democratic debate.
Dividing Egypt into two camps – one including those who believe democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and the other including those who don't – would give some reason for hope: 59% favor democracy, and 38% don't. But if we look at another division – between the camps of those who support and those who oppose the stoning of adulterous women- the results would provide for a different, less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82% are in favor of stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into two camps consisting of those who believe that "a wife must always obey her husband" and those who don't? According to a 2013 PEW report, such a division would put 85% of Egyptians in the camp of people who say that yes, she should always obey. So there are two camps, but on many of the issues the more progressive one is quite tiny in comparison to the other, and building it to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation could prove risky.
With such a starting point, there's no wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt quickly proved to be no more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don't really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood's President Morsi, a democratically elected President who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington's only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities, and relatively stable (it is also Israel's only hope for an Egypt that isn't a constant headache, security wise). The one problem it presents Obama with – saving face on the issue of democracy – is incomparable to the plethora of problems expected under any other scenario.
"I'll be blunt: this is an incredibly complex and difficult situation," Obama's press secretary Jay Carney responded to a question asking whether what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: it isn't the question that's complicated, but rather the "situation"- that is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. You want democracy for Egypt? Come back in twenty years (or at least when the next administration is in power).
A longer version of this article will appear in the print edition of The Jewish Journal.