PostScript: Don’t push it!

Americans should not be trying to force their own democratic standards on Egypt’s emerging political reality.

Egypt's High Court of Justice 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Egypt's High Court of Justice 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Several years ago, for reasons still not fully clear to me, I was invited to attend an international prayer for peace organized by the Vatican in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. On the stage sat the heads of the world’s major religions, all bedecked in their finest ceremonial robes and accoutrements; and in the Square, many hundreds of others, waiting in anticipation for the grand finale of what had been a memorable day, when candles of peace would be lit, doves released and the Hallelujah chorus reach its peak.
And then, just as the first candle was about to be lit by the patriarch of the Syrian-Greek Orthodox Church, it started to rain.
“Ah, what a bad omen,” whispered the Europeans in the audience; “Ah, what a blessing,” said those from Africa and the Middle East.
Same act of God: Two totally different perceptions.
What bring this all to mind, obviously, are the wonderful rains the country and entire region have been blessed with this winter, but also a stark reminder that what works in Washington does not necessarily work in Cairo. The Americans should not be trying to force their own democratic standards on Egypt’s emerging political reality, particularly by ordering the army “back to the barracks,” before Egypt’s “democracy” is ready for it.
In one way or another, the Egyptian military has controlled the country ever since 1952, when King Farouk opted to keep his head and move to the south of France: Col. Nasser, Gen. Sadat and Brig.-Gen. Mubarak. The army controls about 30 percent of the economy and key industries such as trucking and food supply. It is a massive employer, clothing and feeding tens of thousands who would otherwise be without steady work.
The army is critical to Egypt’s economy and social stability, and will remain so until a productive alternate economic base replaces the country’s counter- productive and massively bloated bureaucracy, and its highly over-manned military.
What happened in Tahrir Square a year ago was not a military coup. It was not a burden the brass wanted.
They were living a very pampered life without too many real responsibilities as it was, and needed to find themselves faced with trying to placate the mobs, install democracy, deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, and reap upon themselves scathing criticism from America as a result, like a hole in the head.
One looks at the results of American intervention and the pursuit of democracy in Iraq, and is left to wonder about the wisdom of it all.
Saddam was an affront and threat to the world and needed to be dealt with, but it was when it came to American meddling with politicalsocial systems it was not entirely familiar with, and trying to make these conform to American democratic ideals, that the house came falling down.
Ditto in Libya, though by all standards Gaddafi posed no real threat to the world, especially after he gave up his nuclear program and set his sights on humiliating and playing games with the world’s leadership instead. I firmly believe the Libyan leader sealed his fate when back in 2007 he pitched his tent in the gardens of the old Rothschild mansion near the Champs Elysees in Paris, and thumbed his nose at President Sarkozy’s hospitality.
The noose got tighter when he did the same in Rome, Moscow and New York.
That said, look at the results in Libya, which the enlightened nations of the world have just bombed to pieces for the sake of bringing democracy to that oil-rich country: tribal war, massive amounts of arms once in reliable stockpiles, now in the hands of rebels, terrorists, bank robbers, and everyone except the supposed authorities.
The point is that if the real goal in Egypt is a stable democracy, it should be understood that the country needs a bridge of stability to get there. The army, with its American-trained senior leadership, and close ties to the Pentagon, is that bridge, and pulling the pillars from under it can only lead to chaos, not democracy.
The army has to know its limits. It has to work to actively and consistently ensure that the will of the people is adhered to. But to order it back to the barracks before the time is right is to court another Iraq or Libya, and the Middle East has had enough of those.
Libya’s arsenals in the hands of irresponsible forces is one thing. Egypt’s is another. Democracy in regions where autocrats have ruled for years is a gradual process. It is something that has to be nurtured, not imposed, and those who now demand putting the cart before the horse would do well to think of the long-term consequences of not having short-term patience.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies. His book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, has been awarded first prize in the National Jewish Book Award’s history category for 2011.