As Egypt descends into chaos Western governments have been toning down the rhetoric. They has left it to the media to open the war for international public opinion.
Many commentators, on the left and the right, have chosen to portray the Muslim Brothers as peaceful protesters who have suffered the heavy hand of military repression. From their perspective, within the mythos that they use to interpret history, right wing, fascistic military organizations are the enemy of people’s legitimate aspirations for democracy and freedom.
The New York Times editorialized this morning:
With yet another blood bath in the streets of Cairo on Wednesday, Egypt’s ruling generals have demonstrated beyond any lingering doubt that they have no aptitude for, and apparently little interest in, guiding their country back to democracy. On the contrary, the political obtuseness of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s de facto leader, and the brutal repression he has unleashed now threaten to produce the worst of all possible outcomes to an already inflamed situation: a murderous civil war.
The Guardian compared the Muslim Brotherhood to the pro-democracy protesters who occupied Tienanmen Square two decades ago:
The bloodshed caused by interior ministry troops opening fire with shotguns, machine guns and rooftop snipers on largely peaceful sit-ins took its first major political casualty on Wednesday evening. The leading liberal who had supported the military coup, Mohamed El Baradei, resigned as acting vice-president. The streets around Rabaah al-Adawiya became Egypt's Tiananmen Square.
The view is not limited to those on the left. Writing in National Review Daveed Gartenstein-Ross sounds a similar tone:
The Egyptian military’s slaughter of hundreds of protesters on Wednesday leaves the United States with a single clear, albeit difficult, course of action: condition future aid to Egypt on a series of immediate reforms, and stop providing it if these conditions aren’t satisfied. …
Whatever one thinks of the Brotherhood — and I’m extremely critical of it — the status quo helps nobody. The dead protesters did not deserve to be killed. The moral costs for the U.S. are too high; and from a pragmatic perspective, the country’s image is further damaged in the region because it’s associated with the present atrocities. The mass killings are likely to radicalize the opposition, and predictions that the Brotherhood or significant factions therein could return to anti-government violence look more prescient each day. And al-Qaeda’s narrative is furthered, as Ayman al-Zawahiri’s dark predictions about Egyptian politics seem to be proven correct.
His policy prescription amounts to a call for the Obama administration to side with the Muslim Brotherhood:
Instead, the U.S. should offer a firm and concrete ultimatum that future aid is conditioned on Egypt’s undertaking a series of changes. For starters, the Egyptian regime should unequivocally apologize for the slaughter of protesters; the officers who ordered Wednesday’s massacre should be held to account and court-martialed; and there should be no further willful mass killings. If Egypt doesn’t comply, 100 percent of the U.S.’s military aid should be suspended.
Gartenstein-Ross failed to notice that administration sympathy for the Brotherhood contributed to the crisis.
National Journal’s Michael Hirsh adds what has become a standard talking point of those who prefer not to fight terrorists. In his view cracking down on terrorists only produces more terrorists:
As the Egyptian military consolidates control by murdering pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and declaring a state of emergency, we may be witnessing the most dangerous potential for Arab radicalization since the two Palestinian intifadas.
Hirsh seems to believe that we have now lost the moral high ground and that democracy has suffered a grievous defeat:
Suddenly, in one awful day, the exercise of the democratic rights and ideals that are so dear to America's self-image—and which have formed the heart of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War—were rendered all but irrelevant to many Arabs, especially because of Washington's mild response. Apart from a few dissenters such as ElBaradei, the once-inspiring secularists who massed in Tahrir Square to oust Hosni Mubarak have now repudiated those democratic rights and values by continuing to support the bloody crackdown. And while the Obama administration issued a rote condemnation, the lack of any more dramatic response continues to fritter away what little moral authority America has left.
By this reasoning, we need to assert our moral authority by throwing our moral support behind the murderous thugs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ones who responded to the military assault by burning down Coptic Churches.
The myth of rebellion against oppressive police force is so compelling that many thinkers have not considered that the Brotherhood wanted a violent confrontation in order to portray itself as an innocent victim, to better to gain moral support and financial aid from the West.
In The New Yorker Peter Hessler reports on conversations he had with Egyptians. He helps to put the situation into perspective:
On Tuesday, when I telephoned a good friend from Cairo, the situation was still peaceful, but he insisted that the military would act within the next two days. He had no inside information—just a sense from the mood on the street. “The Army feels pressure from the people,” he said. “People in Cairo want the Army to do something. They’re saying that the army seems weak if it can’t get rid of the sit-ins.” This morning, after the death toll rose into the hundreds, and the interim government declared a state of emergency, I called my friend again. “Now that we’re in a state of emergency, the police and the army can do whatever they want,” he said. He expected that the majority of Egyptians would approve of this course of action, and blame the Brotherhood for resisting security forces. “The Brotherhood are losing every bit of popular support they once had,” he said. “Nobody is happy with them. There isn’t the least bit of sympathy for them. It’s like dogs dying in the street. Nobody cares.”
Even though the Brotherhood had no idea of how to govern, Hessler says, it was adept at manipulating the foreign media:
Their approach to governance seemed abstract and theoretical—for a group with a reputation for grassroots organizing, the Brotherhood was surprisingly out of touch with what was actually happening in Egypt. This quality has only worsened since Morsi’s ouster. Over the past month and a half, the Brotherhood’s main strategy has been to appeal to the foreign press and diplomatic corps. In some ways, this has been effective—the organization clearly has the moral high ground, given that its elected government was removed in a military coup, and that its leader is being held incommunicado. But it has become dangerously isolated from the main currents of Egyptian society, and its tactic of disrupting Cairo traffic has created even more enemies in the capital.
Certainly, Hessler does not sympathize with the military. Yet, he closes his column with a very telling remark from an Egyptian engineer:
“We’re just like football fans here,” an engineer named Mohamed Latif told me, in a village called El-Araba. “When somebody scores, we cheer. But it doesn’t matter. Do you really think that anything we do here matters? Why do you want to talk to us? I voted for Morsi, and I prayed for him, but he failed. I’m against what happened. We should have kept him as an honorary figure. We could have given the power to the Army and others, but left Morsi as the President in name.”
I asked him if he believed that the coup had been a mistake. “No,” he said. “He failed. I won’t vote for them again. I don’t want democracy.” He continued, “Does China have democracy? How is its economy doing? I don’t care about democracy and freedom.”
People who feel that they cannot have both free enterprise and free elections, but who have to choose one, will invariably choose free enterprise. We like to think that the American way is a beacon to the world’s people, but increasingly the Chinese way is taking over that role. And it’s not because we have lost the moral high ground.
Jonathan Tobin offers a more realistic perspective on the situation on the Commentary Contentions blog:
But the notion that the Brotherhood is the innocent victim of a nasty junta seeking to bring back Mubarak-era authoritarianism is only half right. Though the military government is an unsavory partner for the United States, no one should be under any illusions about the Brotherhood or why the majority of Egyptians (who went to the streets in their millions to support a coup) probably approve of the military’s actions.
Proof of the true nature of the Brotherhood was available for those who read accounts in the last weeks of life at their Cairo encampments that were policed by Islamist thugs with clubs and other weapons. Brotherhood gunmen fought the police in pitched battles. Non-violent civil disobedience isn’t in the Brotherhood playbook. Even more damning was the Brotherhood response elsewhere in Egypt. As the International Business Times reports:
Supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi have attacked churches in Dilga, Menya and Sohag after government security forces backed by armored cars and bulldozers stormed protest camps outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.
The Churches of Abraham and the Virgin Mary in Menya were burning after Morsi supporters set fire to the outside of the building exteriors and smashed through doors. … Muslim Brotherhood members also threw firebombs at Mar Gergiss church in Sohag, a city with a large community of Coptic Christians who represents up to 10 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people, causing it to burn down, the official MENA news agency said. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the Bon Pasteur Catholic Church and Monastery in Suez, setting it ablaze and breaking windows.
If the U.S. seeks to cripple the military, they won’t be helping the cause of democracy. The Brotherhood may have used a seemingly democratic process to take power in 2012, but they would never have peacefully relinquished it or allowed their opponents to stop them from imposing their will on every aspect of Egyptian society. As difficult as it may be for some high-minded Americans to understand, in this case it is the military and not the protesters in Cairo who are seeking to stop tyranny. Though the military is an unattractive ally, anyone seeking to cut off vital U.S. aid to Egypt should remember that the only alternative to it is the party that is currently burning churches.
And David Goldman offers this analogy:
Suppose the German military had overthrown the democratically-elected leader of Germany and massacred his loyal followers, say, in 1936? The world, presumably, would have condemned the blatant use of force against an elected leader even if, hypothetically, a third of the German population already had taken to the streets to demand Hitler’s ouster. The Muslim Brothers are Nazis bearing a crescent rather than a swastika.
Goldman is being slightly naïve here. If it had happened that the German military had overthrown the elected leader of Germany in 1936, most of the news media would, in the name of liberty and democracy, have supported them. On the grounds that we had to occupy the moral high ground.
They would have argued that we need to respect the outcome of a democratic process and that, aside from a few restrictions on Jewish rights and an occasional pogrom, the National Socialists were not such a bad bunch.