I think the current situation in Egypt presents Americans with one of the central moral dilemmas of our time. One that we’ve seen repeated frequently, and to which we have been frequently accused of having selected the wrong answer. I’m going to try to work it out for myself onscreen here. I’ll be grateful for your company.
The present dilemma is very close to the problem of the “right-wing dictatorship” that the US has struggled with for decades. It is a problem for both liberals and conservatives. It is almost impossible to guess right. Think, for example, of the Shah of Iran. A dictator. And a friend to the U.S. in a part of the world where friends are few and far between. And a bulwark against fanaticism. The U.S. supported the Shah, antidemocratic though he may have been. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Mmm, maybe not such a bulwark. Shah out, Ayatollah(s) in. Iran now not only unfriendly, but close to a nuclear state, and a haven for anti-U.S. Islamist conspiracy.
So what to do this time around?
You got yourself a prominent Middle Eastern country, Egypt. It is a large country, and could hardly be more strategically located. It has been a prize in many a war.
The leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is authoritarian (but not totalitarian), extremely corrupt, and anti-democratic. Oh, Egypt has elections, but they’re corrupt, too. He has ruled for around 30 years, since shortly after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Egypt’s people are very poor and oppressed. He qualifies as a dictator.
The assassination of Anwar Sadat
For themselves, Americans disfavor dictatorship and oppression, and favor democracy and self-determination. As do all peoples blessed with a history of personal freedom.
Egypt is around 90% Muslim. Some Egyptian Muslims, by no means all, are known these days as Islamists, fanatical totalitarian Muslims who want to impose Islam on the entire world, through violence if necessary. While Islamists are less active in Egypt than in some other Middle Eastern countries, they do tend to radicalize the societies in which they are active, through threats of violence against moderate Muslims, if not by the persuasiveness of their ideas.
And by the way, let’s review generally what Islamists want. They believe that a a Twelfth Imam is in hiding and will emerge to save the world after a period of unimaginable chaos throughout the world. The chaos is a necessary predicate to his appearance. The Twelfth Imam will then emerge to establish a worldwide – that includes us – caliphate in which all will live in peace. There’s more, but you get the idea. This isn’t just about local self-determination. It remains unclear, to me at least, what “moderate” Muslims expect to happen and whether they feel called upon to create the chaotic conditions necessary for the Twelfth Imam’s arrival.
There is a small but strong minority of Coptic Christians in Egypt. There has been some Muslim violence against them recently. Both Muslims and Christians have participated in the recent revolt.
Egypt is not now an Islamist state or notable as a hotbed of Islamist anti-Western conspiracy.
Egypt under Mubarak is not a threat to the United States.
Egypt has reached an accommodation with the Jewish state. I can’t tell you the details, but they’re at peace and have been for quite some time.
Given the opportunity to vote, Muslims sometimes install radical governments (Hamas in Palestine, Ahmadinejad in Iran) who are powerfully opposed to America and supportive of the violent spread of Islam. And sometimes revolution goes directly from secular despot to religious despot (the Shah of Iran to the Ayatollah Khomeini). (Iran, like Egypt, is nominally a democracy, but in name only – only those who have demonstrated unquestioned fealty to the theocracy are permitted on the ballot. Like when Saddam Hussein would win elections with almost 100% of the “popular vote.”)
Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss.
So as we view recent events in Egypt: What’s it gonna be?
Support Mubarak and “stability” in Egypt because it tends to suppress the spread of radical Islam, keep Israel safe, provide some security for local Christians, and maintain a generally pro-U.S. presence at that critical world intersection, at the cost of continued economic and political oppression of the Egyptian public accompanied by massive corruption?
Or support the people in their efforts to overthrow Mubarak and introduce some measure of self-determination into Egypt, with the risk that hostile Islamists will eventually take over, destabilize Jordan (also at peace with Israel), possibly also Saudi Arabia (which has condemned the revolution), ally with Iran, and greatly increase the radical Muslim threat worldwide?
The choice, in my view is a moral one: I understand that the following is reductive, but I think it is generally fair to say that the choice is between the short-term certainty of increased freedom for Egyptians (good) and the long-term likelihood of enhanced security for free peoples worldwide (also good)?
Well, I’m going to vote.
I vote for the people and freedom and revolution, for instability and the risk of spreading Islamist influence.
My reasons are not sentimental or a hearkening back to our own American Revolution that turned out so nicely.
-- (1) There’s the obvious: The likelihood of increased freedom and better conditions for Egyptians. Won’t happen overnight, but even in the short run hope is better than hopelessness.
-- (2) Mubarak is going to lose. He has not been effective in quashing dissent, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, nominally illegal but active in Egypt.
-- (3) Is a state with Islamist elements in the government – or expressly Islamist -- worse than one where the government professes cooperation with the U.S. but cannot control the corruption that allows Islamists to conspire under government protection in the intractable interior? Is Iran worse than Pakistan? Aren’t we better off with a government to target – a hostile government that can be credibly threatened with sanctions and the threat of military attack – than with a hypocritical government nominally cooperative with the U.S. that is completely ineffective at quashing the export of Islamic imperialist terror? Aren’t we better off with an enemy we can see than one we can’t?
If Islamism takes over a government as strong and stable as Mubarak’s has been for the past three decades, its face will be revealed even more dramatically for those who aren’t already convinced by events in almost every European country. Creeping Islamism is a palpable threat in France, Germany, England, and the Netherlands, where Sharia “law” threatens liberal Western values; the slightest criticism of radical Muslim totalitarianism calls forth violent demands for silence, and even murder.
-- (4) But I’m not that worried about an Islamist takeover. Unlike Iran, this does not appear to be an Islamic revolution. It is political and economic, with some Islamist participation. The military is strong and is a fair bet to form the new government, one not beholden to the clerics.
-- (5) Mubarak is pretty bad. Islamists are never going to be happy with the U.S., but we may make a few friends by being on the side of political freedom.
On 9/11, a phrase kept going through my mind: The Middle East needs to be seriously reordered. The United States, correctly in my view, began this process in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is true that much of its effort was incompetent, but at least we live in a society that allows us to say it. Whatever the Middle Eastern “street” may think, or claim to think, about the United States, they can see that the people of Iraq are struggling towards democracy, as difficult and fraught with danger and insecurity as that may be. I’m betting that the Egyptians will not trade Mubarak for a mullah, and that in the long run, it will continue to be a force for stability in the Middle East, only this time with a population having some voice in its future – and friends of the United States.