Some two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote an essay for this magazine, titled “Secular Good, Muslim Bad“. It was a reflection on the initial protests which became the Arab Spring, before the counterrevolution kicked in and turned a hopeful cry for breathing room into a demented Arab Spring Cleaning. The vermin are fellow Arabs, demonized and derided for years, such that their blood becomes cheap.
This happens all too often with minorities; what is unique about the Arab world is the degree to which many dictatorships also oppress the majority. My point in that essay about Tunisia was that we in America and the West generally reflexively associate secularism with what is good and democratic, and conservatism (specifically, in Islam) with that which is antidemocratic and oppressive. As I wrote:
This assumption lazily equates the public practice of Islam with all things undemocratic, whereas we are inclined to view secularism—even when enforced by a dictator—as explicitly preferable, even though in the experience of many Arabs (and Muslims), secularism is the ideology which justifies control of their lives, religion, and politics.
The Arab Spring focused on overthrowing dictators of a largely secular cast; Tunisia and Egypt were not Islamic Republics, Yemen was a mess to begin with but not particularly ideologically Islamic—although religiously conservative—and Syria was dominated by a secular Ba’ath party. Yet, as I wrote, the New York Times, America’s leading newspaper, irresponsibly confused religiosity with a lack of receptivity to democracy. (Then again, if you’re the majority, of course you’d support democracy—a principled stand is sometimes a partisan stand.)
Following the latest in the Egyptian military’s unprovoked assaults on civilian protesters, who reasonably enough are furious with the cancellation of their vote, the same kinds of conflations continue to be made. It’s as if we cannot bring ourselves to believe that people who wear suits and ties, go to beaches for vacation, put religion on the backburner, and otherwise say and do the “right things,” can be brutal, venal, narrow-minded and authoritarian. Consider this bit from today’s New York Times:
But in a televised statement, Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister and a Western-trained economist who had been considered a liberal, cited the Islamists’ supposed stockpiling of weapons and ammunition to argue that the use of force was justified to protect the rights of other citizens.
Western-trained! Economist! (Read “non-ideological”; we love to assume economists have no agendas, but for the invisible hand of the market, which is benign and sacred. Indeed where does capitalism lead us except the best of all possible worlds?). A liberal! A had-been! But you know what? El-Beblawi is still a liberal. For in its otherwise excellent coverage of the military’s violent assault, the Times cannot escape a challenge to its fundamental worldview. Like the Muslims who cannot believe al-Qaeda are Muslims who (appear to) believe that what they do is justified by Islam.
This doesn’t mean that liberals are a priori authoritarian, or that Islamists are reflexively democratic; it means, instead, that we continue to impose onto the Middle East a set of categories grounded less in observation and more in assumption—or, if we’re more cynical, prejudice. It’s been nearly three years. Isn’t it time we swallowed our pride and moved on? In that same 2011 essay, I wrote:
In the Western world, we achieved political secularism after decades of debate and division. But it was nevertheless an organic process, such that we feel secularism is “ours,” and we have ownership over it (or, at least, many of us do—the religious right would beg to differ, and sometimes for reasons not dissimilar to Muslim frustrations with secular elites).
In the Muslim world, on the other hand, the secular brand is badly tarnished, because it’s often associated with either the colonizer or indigenous elites who forced local cultures to change. (Ataturk and Reza Shah, secular leaders of Turkey and Iran, obligated women to uncover their heads and men to change how they covered theirs; in Turkey, some who refused to change their clothes were executed).
This merry-go-round is getting nauseating.
After June 30th, people wondered whether Algeria was Egypt’s fate, or whether something worse is around the corner. In Today’s Zaman, I argued that Pakistan might be the more operative analogy. With weapons flowing in from Qaddafi’s looted cache, plus an army that according to Wikileaks is “no longer capable of combat,” it’s unclear how said military can secure the country, regain control of the Sinai—a thousand times harder after what happened yesterday—or hold its end of the bargain up with Israel. Likely, Israel will soon be sending its own drones and planes into the Sinai, if it hasn’t already.
From today on, a substantial plurality of many Arab countries, which identify as Islamist, now see the ballot box as closed to them. All votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others.
Fool me once, your fault, fool me twice—my fault. With destabilizing governments, weaker borders, more transnational movements, and an al-Qaeda that would love to swoop in and take advantage of the situation, the situation will likely, as the Arabist reported, get a lot worse. I don’t think Egypt’s headed for a civil war, but the return of a military-police state means some kind of an insurgency, albeit one it’ll be ever harder to put down. Egypt is basically bankrupt, dependent on economic handouts, and incapable of satisfying the needs of its people. In the region, it carries almost no geopolitical significance, except a prize that far smaller countries can bid for—a little bit like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, surprisingly irrelevant for its size.
The question is: What do we, as Americans, do? I say: Nothing. Not a thing. Enough of wasting our money on governments who do little, if anything for their people, enrich themselves, cultivate corruption, torture innocents and burn people alive in their protest encampments. We are firstly faced with greater economic concerns, and secondly, our morality should not be pinned to such a worryingly apathetic calculus. That this is some kind of ‘revolutionary reset’ strikes me as the observation of someone who has never before watched the news. It’s pretty clear what this is. It’s just ironic that a movement called “rebellion” reinstated dictatorship.
It’s not ironic that many Egyptians don’t care. It’s disgusting.
The military went after Copts at Maspero, and few said anything. (While, we should add, the Brotherhood was at least ostensibly in charge.) Now they’ve gone after the most organized political opposition in the country, killing hundreds and wounding thousands—blood spilled is not soon forgotten. The Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Brotherhood in decades past left us with Sayyid Qutb and violent offshoots like Gamaa’ Islamiyya, not to mention Ayman al-Zawahiri. We kept quiet even as hatred of the regime bred hatred of America. Think about that for a moment.
Why do we fund a regime that, in past decades, so made their own people hate us that they wanted to and actually did attack us? Why continue to support a regime that had chances to peacefully end this standoff, for there are alternatives to bulldozing encampments and shooting protesters, but chose to go for the death blow? And what will Obama do, except dither as he has in the face of the Arab Spring, afraid to lead, uncertain how to react, having no strategy towards the Muslim world except launching missiles from robots while telling us we can’t stand an eternal war on terror?
We must broadcast to the Egyptian military that we want no more part of their decades of human rights violations, not least because the blowback affects us, too. Whatever severe mistakes the Brotherhood made in power, it was nevertheless meant to be the beginning of a long experiment, and democratic experiments rarely begin brightly. If they are allowed to begin at all. If the Egyptian military can find alternate sources of support, then fine. Let them. Good for them. They had years and years to run Egypt, and made not only nothing of it, but took whatever potential it had and drowned it in the Nile. Those who failed so many times before are not suddenly going to succeed.
Because, as we saw yesterday, and as we saw so many times before, the Egyptian military does not care about Egyptians. It cares about itself. It’s no different than so many of the institutions and movements that claim to empower the Arab world and Middle East, but do nothing for it.