I am not an authority on Egypt. The only part of North Africa I have visited is the Maghreb, many years ago. I never achieved more than an introductory knowledge of Arabic, and today recall only a few phrases, the beauty of the writing, and the painful complexities of forming plurals. Everything I know about Egypt comes from books, journals, and (recently) the internet, mostly in the writing of non-Egyptians. I do not intend to pose as an instant expert on that country. Instead, my thoughts on Egypt involve the application of general principles of comparative politics to my admittedly superficial knowledge of the country.
In my previous observations on “the Arab Spring,” I was skeptical of the exuberant optimism with which many Americans greeted popular uprisings against authoritarian governments. Many of the countries in North Africa seemed to me to illustrate the situation known as the paradox of democracy. That is, forces opposed to liberal democracy were likely to come to power in any democratic elections, making democratization a self-defeating proposition. As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in his analysis of American democracy, successful popular government rests on stable civic institutions. Unfortunately, the civic institutions of Egypt and the countries in its region may not be conducive to full-fledged participatory electoral politics.
Egypt is polarized between secularists and adherents of political and social Islam. The latter possess the strongest and best-organized voluntary associations, mainly under the general direction of a single organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. The secularists are numerous, but fragmented. Thus, the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, became the legitimately elected leader of the country after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Because of his base in the Muslim Brotherhood, though, Morsi proceeded to concentrate power and to move the country toward the vision of the supporters of political Islam. The resulting opposition to him from the secularists and from the bureaucracy inherited from the Mubarak era intensified the polarization, which worsened the country’s economic condition, and a deteriorating economy, in turn, deepened dissatisfaction on the part of Morsi opponents and further exacerbated the polarization.
Although the civic institutions of Egyptian society are divisive, the country does have a strong and stable formal organizational institution: the army. By definition a hierarchy, the army does not easily lend itself to democracy to the extent that it is actively involved in government. The Egyptian military also adds another layer to the polarization because its leaders have historically viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as subversive. Following its coup d’etat against Morsi, the army is now siding with the secularists, but the ultimate interest of the military is order, not liberal democracy.
The most optimistic near future may be a staged democracy, in which the military directs elections and maintains control more or less behind the scenes. Note that in describing this as the most optimistic possibility, I am not expressing an ideology, but simply saying that I think that military-directed pseudo-democracy would be preferable to outright dictatorship by the army, the establishment of an authoritarian Islamic state, or a continual state of war in the streets. However, I don’t think that my preferences for Egypt matter. I am not an Egyptian. This brings me to the question of what stance my government should take toward affairs in Egypt.
Just as I don’t think my personal political preferences about a foreign country’s internal politics matter, I don’t think my government should seek to impose its preferences. While Americans have every right to be pleased if Egypt moves toward liberal democracy or disappointed if it moves toward some version of authoritarianism, the form of government in that nation is none of our business. We are currently charged, with some validity, of being hypocritical in our rapid shifts of support for regimes supposedly in transition to democracy. We would do better to avoid global proselytizing and to be clear, first, that the sovereignty of the United States ends at the borders of the United States, and, second, that our overriding foreign policy aim is the pursuit of our own national interests. This would mean explicitly stating that we will recognize any de facto government in Egypt or any other country, and that our recognition implies neither approval nor disapproval. If we provide aid, it should be clear that this is not contingent on a foreign country’s adopting a political system that we find amenable, but on that country’s support for our national interests.