Events are moving fast, but let’s stop and think a moment, prompted by this major new TWS essay from Reuel Marc Gercht, former CIA guy in Turkey and prodigious commentator on things Middle-Eastern, and author of (2011) The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East.
Many will regard him as a neo-con, but he’s always struck me as pretty wise about his subjects, someone whose existence debunks the straw-man account of neo-conservative foreign policy so often given. In any case, with liberal democracy perhaps on the retreat across the globe, and dealt huge setbacks in Egypt and Turkey, not primarily due to Obama’s foreign policy but by no means resisted by it, many of us may again be harkening to “neo-con” voices in foreign policy soon enough.
Gerecht thinks the coup was too much, too soon. Had Morsi been left in power longer, he and the Brotherhood would have reaped even more unpopularity, and would have lost big in upcoming parliamentary elections. In such a scenario, had a later anti-Morsi coup still proved necessary, it would thus have been one more tied to constitutional propriety. But the way it happened will now make it an embittering grievance to the Islamic faithful.
Another recommended essay is over at The Arabist, by Ursula Lindsey and titled “On Egypt’s Failure.” Lindsey also argues that the army should have held back longer so as to decrease Morsi’s popularity, but mainly for the sake of allowing the protesters more time with which to have developed a more-mass-based movement to have overthrown him. That idea is delusional, but her essay is generally thoughtful, and it describes well the current creepy propaganda campaign on behalf of the army’s role. [Update: my mistake and apology--someone I read recently has argued this, but upon further review I see it wasn't Lindsey in this essay, not in any explicit way.]
I regard this could-have-been scenario as delusional because I take Gerecht’s judgment of Egyptian liberals/secularists to be all too accurate:
…they appear convinced that the large crowds who have defended Morsi since his fall are paid peasants brought in from the countryside. The Brotherhood, we are assured, has few followers left in Cairo, a metropolis of near 20 million known for vast neighborhoods of densely packed, broken-brick-and-cracked-concrete apartment buildings, where unveiled women are rarely seen…
We don’t even know whether they believe in political pluralism; they obviously are not firmly attached to the ballot box. Given the concatenation of forces in the anti-Morsi demonstrations, it’s perhaps best to think of the movement they formed as a mix of the meanings of the word they took as their name: tamarrod. Beyond “rebellion” there’s “refractoriness,” “disobedience,” and “insubordination.” …An inchoate but powerful individualism has taken hold. [It] …isn’t likely to lead to personal tolerance and civil manners, let alone a coherent political philosophy, without which parties cannot form.
And indeed, the inability to form disciplined and compromise-ready political parties was a good deal of the electoral undoing of the various secularists in 2012. Gerecht’s analysis of the “tamarrod spirit” also reminds me that in the early stages of the Revolution, left-leaning Westerners were asked celebrate the fact that the young urban Revolutionaries believed so unequivocally in liberal values and to marvel at facts such as, say, Henry Rollins of Black Flag punk fame getting a warm welcome there in a music shop stocked with rock, punk, techno, rap, etc.
Yeah, Henry Rollins might provide a workable way (for sophomoric liberals) to protest LAPD heavy-handedness in the early 1980s, and other minor Western maladies, and maybe punk music really could strengthen your spine in the aughties if you’re an alienated Egyptian liberal youth under the boot of Mubarak, but no, the example of Rollins and such sure can’t find help you navigate your way to political effectiveness between the Egyptian military on one hand and popular Islamist groups on the other. But let’s let Gerecht continue:
Judging by the glee with which many within the rebellion have greeted the military crackdown on the Brotherhood, it’s doubtful that the Tamarrod would ever again agree to allow the Islamists, or even just the religious, a decisive hand in writing a constitution. …For the secularists, political pluralism appears to mean that their views must be dominant regardless of any vote.
…In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the European Westernization of Egypt produced intellectual titans of liberal secularism: Taha Hussein, Muhammad Hussein Haykal, Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, and more. …These secular liberals all lost in the end… But before they surrendered, these men knew where they stood and where they wanted to take the country. Others knew, too, since these men wrote constantly and at length.
The “globalization”—or rather, the American Westernization—of Egypt that has been gaining speed since the 1960s has no literary or political giants. Facebook and Twitter are media ideal for an age of unarticulated and uneducated revolt. The Americanization of Egyptian secular thought may be far stronger than the earlier wave of liberalization because it is vastly more popular. But the culture and style of Egypt’s Westernized youth …are unlikely to produce the type of politician that is needed: an Egyptian version of the late Turkish prime-minster-turned-president Turgut Özal, who was as comfortable among devout Turkish pilgrims to Mecca as with wine-sipping IMF economists.
Henry Rollins-style political discourse and personal decorum cannot help Egyptian secularists produce such leaders.
The driving force behind the Tamarrod may be just too far removed culturally from the Egyptian faithful. One thing is certain after the coup: Secular liberals will want to be protected from vengeful Islamists. And for that they will need the army…
Gerecht is thus against all those now justifying the coup: against the Obama administration, David Brooks, and George Will, which in the last case also means declaring that Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards” was debunked long ago (by Robert Kagan), and that even Reagan didn’t follow its recommendations.
Gerecht was essentially with (see his 2012 essay “Living with Islam”) certain voices in the Obama State Dept., or among the academic supporters of the Revolution at a site like The Arabist, which for a time held that the Revolution presented a chance to split the broad Islamic constituency represented by the Brotherhood, to separate the Brothers ready to meet democratic secularists half-way, from the rest, and to let the latter earn the scorn of the populace through their own policies, actions, etc. All of these voices said that we could not simply label the entire Brotherhood as poisonous. That we also had to regard the rift between Brotherhood Islamism and that of the Salafis as important. Gerecht in a sense speaks for all of these voices in lamenting the passing of an opportunity, forced by the army’s and the protesters’ impatience on one hand, and by Morsi’s inability to restrain his movement’s worst instincts on the other, for this split to have happened (and with it, organic development of semi-moderate Islamism).
The main point of his current essay is that, despite all the Western happy-talk about the coup, we shouldn’t expect things to work out, because
As long as the religious are more numerous, political parties that explicitly claim the faith will have an advantage over the secular, intellectually undernourished, Westernized youth who drove both rebellions.
And they are more numerous. Thus, until the population becomes far less observantly Islamic and far more secularist or atheist (and I’ll add, or more Christian), there is no hope for democracy there. And despite sightings of Henry Rollins fans and other such things on the streets of Cairo, there is no obvious trend towards greater societal secularization, and solid evidence of the opposite.
So what Gerecht seems to be talking himself towards is the idea that now that the coup has occurred the slender opportunity for liberal democracy to take root and grow in Egypt, and perhaps even in the entire Islamic world, given the now-evident failure of the Ataturk project in Turkey, has passed. For the time being, probably a long time, we are back to “Islamic exceptionalism,” the conviction that democracy is impossible in Islamic societies. I am not sure how serious Gerecht is about that, since he apparently directly argued against the concept in his 2011 book.
But events have taken a life of their own. Assuming Gerecht is serious about the idea that the coup’s implicit exclusion of “moderate-trending” Islamists from what he once called the democratic wave means that that wave is doomed, doesn’t that mean, paradoxically, that even if one judges the coup was a mistake, one must support it now?
Let me explain. If predominately Islamic societies cannot do democracy, that has to mean a U.S. policy that prefers dictators and kings for such societies, right? So even if we can plausibly imagine that a slightly better Morsi and a slightly more disciplined opposition might have existed and could have made better choices over the course of the last year, and thus allowed the fragile shoot of democratic compromise to take hold, these choices weren’t made, and so the chasm between the liberals and the faithful, and the dependence of the former upon the army, are now simply the facts of Egyptian situation, the ones that one must now work from, right?
And that means one must now support the coup. (One might say, “For the Egyptian situation alone,” but obviously, one cannot but tend to apply the lesson we’re apparently learning there to other Islamic nations.) Count me as very unhappy with this logic, and wanting to instead get caught up in Gerecht’s sophisticated post-game analysis, but isn’t this what sober judgment now requires? Unless of course, the optimists about the coup are right (see the Phares link below).
Egypt tried democracy. But as even the likes of Ursula Lindsey half-admit to themselves, as the title of her essay signals, Egypt failed. So contrary to what Gerecht seems to imply, but directly in line with what his analysis demands, the Egyptians have to make the best of things and support the coup, as must U.S. policy. And make no mistake, that means support for a “new Mubarak.” More on what that might mean next.
For analysis contrary to all of this, which regards the coup and the protests backing it as a “second Arab spring,” see this piece by Lebanese-American scholar Walid Phares, one of the few analysts who even more emphatically than Gerecht predicted the first Arab spring.