The Ridiculous “Who Lost Egypt?” Argument
Egypt is in the middle of its first round of free elections ever, this time for the lower house of the legislature, and so far things seem to be going well for the nations Islamist parties:
CAIRO — Islamists claimed a decisive victory on Wednesday as early election results put them on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt‘s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the most significant step yet in the religious movement’s rise since the start of the Arab Spring.
The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected. But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.
Analysts in the state-run news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 percent of the parliamentary seats.
That victory came at the expense of the liberal parties and youth activists who set off the revolution, affirming their fears that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years organized and with an established following. Poorly organized and internally divided, the liberal parties could not compete with Islamists disciplined by decades as the sole opposition to Mr. Mubarak. “We were washed out,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the most politically active of the group.
Although this week’s voting took place in only a third of Egypt’s provinces, they included some of the nation’s most liberal precincts — like Cairo, Port Said and the Red Sea coast — suggesting that the Islamist wave is likely to grow stronger as the voting moves into more conservative rural areas in the coming months. (Alexandria, a conservative stronghold, also has voted.)
The preliminary results extend the rising influence of Islamists across a region where they were once outlawed and oppressed by autocrats aligned with the West. Islamists have formed governments in Tunisia and Morocco. They are positioned for a major role in post-Qaddafi Libya as well. But it is the victory in Egypt — the largest and once the most influential Arab state, an American ally considered a linchpin of regional stability — that has the potential to upend the established order across the Middle East.
Islamist leaders, many jailed for years under Mr. Mubarak, were exultant. “We abide by the rules of democracy, and accept the will of the people,” Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s new party, wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian. “There will be winners and losers. But the real — and only — victor is Egypt.”
Results will not be final until January, after two more rounds of voting. And the ultimate scope of the new Parliament’s power remains unclear because Egypt has remained under military rule since Mr. Mubarak resigned as president in February. But Parliament is expected to play a role in drafting a new Constitution with the ruling military council, although the council has given contradictory indications about how much parliamentary input it will allow.
One of the reasons the Islamist parties seem to be doing so well isn’t so much ideological as it is the fact that they’re better organized than their rivals:
Everywhere I went, the Brotherhood operation was in full swing. In the working class neighborhood of Sayida Zeinab, Freedom and Justice volunteers manned four laptops right in front of the polling station, while other Brotherhood members monitored the long line of voters. On the Nile island of Manial, Freedom and Justice youths managed two computers and handed out campaign literature, while additional female volunteers were on hand to assist religious women voters who might feel uncomfortable dealing with men. “I’m here to help my party,” Jehan Darwish, one of the female volunteers told me. But this conflicted with the Brotherhood’s official line, and the kiosk’s manager quickly intervened. “It’s a community service for voters to tell them where to vote,” interjected Mohamed Mansour. “It’s a free service for those who vote for us and those who don’t.”
To be sure, the Brotherhood wasn’t the only group that had organized effectively for the elections. In Heliopolis, a few independent candidates had also set up stations, and in many areas the ubiquity of Freedom and Justice banners was matched by that of the Salafist Nour party, which is reportedly making an especially strong showing in lower income neighborhoods. But what makes the Brotherhood’s showing so remarkable is how consistent it is: they are, simply put, everywhere. And given that they are pushing an Islamist message that holds visceral appeal for the religious Muslim public of Egypt, they may have devised a formula for victory.
This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood existed, both legally and otherwise, during the years of the Mubarak dictatorship and were already fairly well organized when the Mubarak regime collapsed and the time came to begin creating the new Egypt. The same apparently cannot be said for newer political organizations, especially those born out of the protests in Tahrir Square, which have remained largely disorganized, to the frustration of their supporters:
“I wanted to vote for the youth, but no one is organized enough. That’s why I voted for the Brotherhood. I don’t want an Islamist party, I just want some organization. Enough chaos.”
There are definitely some concerns that the rise of Islamists in Egypt raises for the region. Leaving aside for the moment the possible impact that such a government could have on the rights of Egyptian women, as well as the Coptic Christian community, it’s long been a tenant of many of these groups that the Peace Treaty with Israel is a bad thing that Egypt needs to reject. The rise of a government in Egypt that becomes hostile to Israel and the west would be of great concern to the United States and the world. However, much of that depends on just how much authority the Egyptian military lets the civilian government have. It’s fairly well established, for example, that the military strongly supports the treaty with Israel, largely because they’re still stinging from fighting them twice nearly 50 years ago. As we’ve seen recently, the military is by no means prepared to simply step aside and give up its privileged position in Egyptian society. One doubts that this will change once the new Egyptian Constitution (which they will play a large role in drafting, by the way) goes into effect.
Domestically, the news about the rise of Islamist elements in Egypt has led to the resurrection of a meme on the right that we saw a little bit of earlier this year, the allegation that the Obama Administration somehow “lost” Egypt by allowing Hosni Mubarak’s government to fall in the face of massive political protests. William Jacobson made the argument yesterday, for example:
Obama’s foolish policy of forcing Mubarak out of office precipitously without giving non-Islamist parties time to organize has resulted in Islamists achieving a sweeping victory in the first round of parliamentary elections. Strength by the Muslim Brotherhood was expected, but the extremely hard line Salafists had a very strong showing.
This all was very predictable. In fact, I predicted it while Obama was insisting that Mubarak leave “yesterday,” NY Times columnists were writing delusional columns about the Arab Street and the Arab Spring, and venomous anti-Israeli pundits at Media Matters and elsewhere complained that the “Israel Lobby” was trying to stifle freedom.
The same argument was being made while the protests were going on, most notably perhaps by Congressman Thad McCotter who argued back in January that the United States should stand behind the Mubarak regime, which he referred to as “an imperfect government, capable of reform” even though there was absolutely no evidence in the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule that he had any desire to reform, or listen to the voices of the people he purported to rule. Not everyone on the right held this view, of course, around the same time that McCotter wrote his piece, National Review’s Jim Gergahaty was making this point:
If you support the right of American Tea Partiers to gather together and protest their government, I don’t quite understand why you would deny the average Egyptian the same right. It’s not like angry Egyptians can write a letter to the editor or vote out their representatives to get better results. Even if the protesters are anti-Israeli, want a more Islamist government, and can repeat every bit of anti-American propaganda they’ve ever heard, who are we to say to them, “You deserve no better than Mubarak”?
And, to expand upon Gergahaty’s argument, who would we have been to say “No, you have to wait until we can trust you to govern yourselves“? Imagine if the French had said the same thing to us in 1783 after we’d defeated the British and earned our independence. It’s the kind of idea that betrays the attitude that certain people aren’t ready for freedom, or simply don’t deserve it. As I observed shortly after Mubarak’s fall, though, it would have been a foolhardy position to take:
[I]t’s true that the process is likely to be messy, but history rarely proceeds along the path that we would like it too. The relatively calm transition in Eastern Europe from Soviet-style dictatorship to democratic states was something of an historical anomaly. History easily could have proceeded differently but for the intervention of men like Mikhail Gorbachev who refused to use the hammer to fight what he recognized was the inevitable and irreversible collapse of the Soviet empire.
There was plenty that could have gone wrong then, and there’s plenty that could go wrong now. As Jeremy Warner writes in the Telegraph today, a revolt in Saudi Arabia could wreck havoc with world oil markets, and the world economy. But what’s the alternative? Sitting back and letting the Saud family violently crush an uprising, thus creating more resentment and an even more potent breeding ground for the radicalism that al Qaeda feeds upon?
When these uprisings are over and the Arab world has settled down, the people are going to remember who was on their side and who wasn’t Do we really want to go down in history as being on the side of the dictators, even rhetorically? For the first time in a thousand years, the Arab people are taking control of their own affairs, we should encourage that rather than telling them that they aren’t ready for the freedom we enjoy here at home.
The entire “Who Lost Egypt?” argument also suffers from the fact that it simply doesn’t comport with the facts. When the Egyptian protests started in mid-January the initial response from the White House was rather muted. Instead of saying the Mubarak should step aside, the Obama Administration was calling on him to reform and to listen to the voices of the Egyptian people. Instead of doing that, however, Mubarak continued responding with ever-increasing force, and the protests quickly moved from general expressions of discontent to outright calls for an end to Mubarak’s rule. At the same time, while the U.S. was apparently trying to influence Mubarak behind the scenes, it was staying relatively quiet publicly, a strategy which caused discontent among the Egyptian protesters who were coming to see the United States as allied with the man who was trying to kill them, as well as attacking them with tear gas made in the United States. It wasn’t until early February, when Mubarak’s days were clearly already numbered, that the U.S. began calling on Mubarak publicly to prepare for a transition to civilian rule. The final resolution of the crisis, with Mubarak at first saying he would stay in power until new elections were held in September and then him stepping down completely when the Egyptian people rejected even that option and the military finally realized that maintaining the Mubarak regime was impossible, happened largely without American intervention.
The idea that there was much of anything that the United States either could have, or should have, done during the Egyptian protests that would have kept Mubarak in power any longer ignores all of the available evidence. The protesters in Tahrir Square and in other cities in Egypt had made clear that they would not negotiate with anyone — not the military, not Egypt’s new Vice-President (a Mubarak crony) — until Mubarak himself had stepped aside as early as the end of January. Nothing Mubarak did persuaded them to leave the protests. Much like the downfall of Nicolae Ceacescu in Romania, the crowds were not going to leave until the dictator had left. The idea that we could have controlled that process is absurd, and the suggestion that we should have stood aside and let Mubarak brutally repress this rebellion is, quite honestly, an insult to American decency.
Update: Jacosbson responds to my argument by pointing to a February 2nd statement made by then White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and making this comment:
The fact is that we threw Mubarack overboard in just one week without giving him a chance to reform or deal with the protests.
One could make a good argument that we should not have intervened at all. But having intervened, we should have done so responsibly.
Except the protests didn’t start on February 2nd, they started in mid-January and, as we learned after Mubarak’s fall, there was back-channel communication with Egyptian military during that time trying to encourage them to deal with the protesters peacefully and listen to their demands. Mubarak refused to do so and only engaged in symbolic moves meant to keep him and his cronies in power as long as possible while avoiding legal culpability for three decades of brutal dictatorship. As I’m sure the average Egyptian in Tahrir Square would have pointed out, Mubarak had thirty years to reform and took no steps to do so, and he responded to the protests with violence and force. In the end, it was the instability caused by those actions that led the military to tell him it was time to go. The idea that we could have done anything to stop that process is a vast overestimation of the extent of American power. Furthermore, keeping dictators in power doesn’t strike me as good policy in the long term,