BY BRET STEPHENS, WSJ—
Egypt is lost.
Don’t console yourself with the belief that the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country’s first free presidential election is merely symbolic, since the army still has the guns: The examples of revolutionary Iran and present-day Turkey show how easily the conscripts can be bought, the noncoms wooed and the officers purged.
Don’t console yourself with the idea that now the Islamists will have to prove themselves capable of governing the country. The Brotherhood is the most successful social organization in the Arab world. Its leaders are politically skillful, economically literate and strategically patient. Its beliefs resonate with poor, rich and middle class alike. And it can always use the army as a scapegoat should the economy fail to improve.
Don’t console yourself with the expectation that the Brotherhood will play by the democratic rules that brought it to power. “Democracy is like a streetcar,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, observed long ago. “When you come to your stop you get off.” Any party that rules street and square makes its own “democratic” rules.
Don’t console yourself, finally, with hope that Egypt will remain a responsible, status quo player on the international scene. By degrees, Egypt under the Brotherhood will seek to arm Hamas and remilitarize the Sinai. By degrees, it will seek to extract concessions from the U.S. as the price of its good behavior. By degrees, it will make radical alliances in the Middle East and beyond.
Who lost Egypt?
The Egyptians, obviously. This was their moment, opportunity, choice. They chose—albeit by a narrow margin—a party that offers Islamic stultification as the solution to every political and personal problem. By the time they come to regret their choice, they won’t be in a position to change it.
But there are other players in this debacle, too.
First, the Obama administration. “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable,” said Hillary Clinton as protesters began descending on Tahrir Square in January 2011. President Obama didn’t help matters by calling instantly for Mr. Mubarak’s removal—thereby demonstrating how foolish it can be to be an ally of the U.S.—after doing nothing in the previous two years to pressure Mr. Mubarak to relinquish power while he still had a chance.
As a result, the U.S. has no credibility with Egyptians, secular or religious, and just 19% of Egyptians approve of Mr. Obama’s leadership, according to Gallup. So much for the Cairo Speech.
Next, the Bush administration.
“Naturally, here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem. If there is a problem, there are legal ways to deal with it, whether here or in the U.S.”
This bit of sycophancy was uttered in March 2006 by Frank Ricciardone, then U.S. ambassador in Cairo, just as the Mubarak government had imprisoned Ayman Nour, its only challenger in the 2005 election. How did an administration so committed to putting its freedom agenda at the heart of its foreign policy allow its ambassador to make these remarks? And what did it suggest to Egyptians about the sincerity of Mr. Bush’s freedom agenda? The questions are self-answering.
Third, the liberal abdicators.
That’s a catch-all term for anyone who believes the result of any free election is ipso facto legitimate and that the world’s responsibility toward Egyptians’ democracy is to preserve a studied neutrality about their political choices. But a democratic election that yields a totalitarian result isn’t “legitimate,” except in the most cramped sense of the word. In reality, it’s a double-barreled catastrophe: a stain on democracy’s good name and a recipe for turbocharged political extremism.
Yet the deeper liberal abdication is the abdication of the idea that freedom is more than simply an end in itself. If you believe that any use of freedom is a legitimate use of freedom—that Larry Flynt inhabits the same moral plane as, say, Vaclav Havel—then what you have mainly succeeded in doing is destroying the attractiveness of freedom to a large segment of the world. It’s the “empty concept of freedom,” says Amr Bargisi of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union for Liberal Youth, that has given Islamists the philosophical and political edge over Egypt’s struggling liberals.
“When Islamists argue for a society that, for example, is free of pornography, you can’t respond by saying that pornographers should have absolute liberty to do what they want,” Mr. Bargisi says. “You will have to offer some good reason for people to have absolute freedom of expression, even when it produces bad side effects.”
What is to be done?
In 1979, the U.S. lost Iran as an ally but formalized an alliance with Egypt. Perhaps we might get lucky should the Assad regime fall to Syrians better disposed to the U.S., not that we’re giving the Syrian people much cause to like us. But that could change if the U.S. is seen as the instrument and guardian of their liberation.
We could also spell out to the new Egyptian government our terms for maintaining financial support and diplomatic favor. The Egyptian economy is in enough distress that the new government could be pliant. But that window won’t be open for very long, and the effects of such pressure aren’t likely to be long-lived.
So prepare for an Egypt that likes us about as much as Nasser’s did and behaves accordingly. It’s going to be a long and ugly haul. And it’s just beginning.