Reacting to Egypt’s Crisis

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Former Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi. Image from Egyptian TV/AFP.

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With the recent well documented upheavals in Egypt, the United Sates is presented with another very complex and important crisis that will continue to affect U.S. security interests across the Arab world. The stakes are particularly high because of the volatile nature of the East’s experiment with democracy. Failure to acceptably resolve this crisis could irreversibly undermine the democratic process not only in Egypt, but across the entire Maghreb, or the Moorish states along the North African Coast including: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya.

What is at play in this instance goes much deeper than a constitutional crisis. What we are seeing in this environment is the physical manifestation of the age-old, world-wide struggle of balancing secularism and faith in the public sphere.  Western political philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, Diderot, Voltaire, Spinoza, Locke, Madison, Jefferson, and Paine are among the founding fathers of secularism. At its core, secularists often argued that religion and governance could not co-exist. In fact, they argue that with the development of history towards the secularization of mankind, a religious state would not function in the modern era. This might seem like a tangentially related subject, but it is essential for policy makers to understand this phenomenon so as to act in the best interests of the U.S. during this tense situation.

egypt unrest

Protesters clash with police in Egypt. Image from Associated Press.

Egypt may be passing through a political crisis; however, the struggle is not between that of a pro- vs. anti-U.S. faction of the Egyptian political world. Instead it is a fundamental challenge to efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood to actively fuse religious policy within a modern state.  Unlike the West, the East is unwilling to abandon religion as a major influence in the civic sphere. Thus in Egypt, we are witnessing the struggling tensions of the Muslim Brotherhood, a democratic but very religiously conservative party, fighting against the much more secular Army and opposition parties.  This is problematic because the inability of the religious conservatives to effectively cope with causal connections has ended with mass manifestations in Trahir square by a nebulous opposition. The opposition has not put forward any coherent alternative to the Brotherhoods agenda sparking fears that the democratic processes have been undercut by impatient citizens.

The problems faced by the Morsi government was that while democratically elected by the Egyptian people; its inability to solve issues facing Egypt resulted in the current face-off between the military and the secularists against the Muslim Brotherhood. While it is tempting to view this crisis as a political one that can be easily and beneficially solved by the backing the opposition and the Army, there is another option that would assist the U.S. in many more ways than one.  The current crisis in Egypt is an important opportunity for the United States to change its image in the East, and amongst the conservative Islamic community world-wide.  If the U.S. backs the opposition or the secular groups and the Army, the already unsavory image amongst the Muslim world of the U.S. would reach a new low, and more importantly the U.S.’s long term regional security goals would be jeopardized. Any support given to the Army or opposition, by nature of the crisis would fall prey to cries of imperialism.

Yet more importantly, the U.S. would undermine fragile democratic processes and institutions established by the Egyptian people. Egypt is a major key to several ongoing U.S. security efforts, ranging from counter-terrorism in North Africa, to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and right now needs security and strength in order to protect the important principles of democratic governance that are critical to international peace. For with the policy chosen for this crisis would have a large impact on the future precedents of democratic governance in Egypt, and potentially in the Muslim world. While it was wise for the U.S. to stay clear of the process of the establishment of the new Arab states, now is the time for the U.S. to actively support the principles of democratic governance with all of its foibles.

Egypt, as noted by several analysts, would benefit from help from states who have been successful in governing nation-states in the modern era. This is because the alternative to adjustment will be a vicious cycle of strongmen backed by the Army, which happens to be the only modern body of the Egyptian state. Consequently, any effort to effectively govern Egypt must be allowed time to adjust to the needs of a modern state while working in the confines of a religious system, not only for Egypt, but also for any other Islamic state that hopes to become genuinely democratic .

By backing Morsi as the legitimate leader and government of Egypt, the U.S. would send a very strong signal to a much wider audience. The East would recognize that not only can the U.S. co-exist with Muslim nations, we are also not out to force Western beliefs and politics onto their culture. While this is a risky policy option, following this prescription could impact our efforts all the way to Afghanistan, and undermine the general anti-U.S. rhetoric of U.S. imperialism. For the larger strategic issues that weigh in the balance in this crisis are not about government—even nations without functioning organs of power can maintain a certain level of normalcy. This crisis is about whether or not the East can adopt Western methods of governance, and fundamentally, whether or not conservatively religious states can operate in the international system through the modern standard for governance (a democratic regime that respects minorities and civil rights).

Even though the opposition has started to harangue President Obama for supporting Morsi, the net benefit of sending the message that the U.S. can work with and support Islamic states is more important than winning the short-term gains available with the opposition. Ideally, the U.S. could help encourage the Morsi supporters to become more willing to share power with opposition groups—establishing a precedent for cooperation between two very different segments of Egyptian society, and also clearing any misconceptions and mistrust felt from the opposition towards the Obama administration.

 

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4 Responses to “Reacting to Egypt’s Crisis”

  1. tbilk Says:

    I will politely disagree with your theory that if we back the army we will be viewed as an imperial master and the Middle East will slip through our fingers. Have you seen the protesters in the streets of Egypt? They are calling the O administration out for supporting Mursi. That support of unpopular power hungry rulers is what causes them to think of us imperial manipulators. How do you justify your theory with the fact that our money going to the army, about 1.5 billion, buys us VIP status in the Suez canal and ensures that Egypt will keep the peace treaty with Israel. If we take that away then how much more will we look like a puppet master punishing Egypt for not doing exactly what the White House wants. Besides all that, the Middle East knows we don’t really care if a secular or religious person is ruling. If that was a big deal than we wouldn’t support the Wahhabi kingdom and we would throw a tantrum over Tunisia. Are we fighting Iran because its a theocracy? No. We are fighting Iran because they don’t play ball. And the people in the Middle East know that we don’t care about it. They care more about our supporting the will of the people (meaning that our aid money trickles down to the average joe) and a lot less if we can stomach someone with a rug burn on their forehead.

  2. Cameron H Says:

    Thanks tbilk for engaging with my post! I think though that i might need to clarify some of my points.

    My argument is a bit more nuanced than what you have accused it of being. You are right that the protesters in the streets of Cairo are “calling out” the Obama administration for backing the Morsi government, however several analysts that i included in my post also cited the GENERAL state of distrust towards America. Neither side trusts the United States, in that from both sides any involvement in Egypt will appear to the Egyptian public as imperial meddling.

    This gives us then the options of supporting principles or people. You are astute in observing that taking away financial support for the army would be an unwise political move, for the very reasons that you mentioned. However, i do not advocate abandoning the army, nor the 1.5 billion dollars in aid that we give to it. In this instance, i would recommend that the US stand by the conditions that we have established for sharing aid with other nations. By this i am referring to the legal obligation of the US to not give financial or military aid to states that have suffered a military coup. Standing by principles (and in the latter case, the law of the land) is by far the safest long-term option given our strategic vision for the region. This doesn’t mean that we should blindly revoke aid to Egypt, rather i think that the current handling of the crisis is a good approach.

    Yet that being said, the current situation in Egypt is incredibly delicate in that with the removal of 1.5 billion dollars of aid, we would be gutting the only functioning organ of governance, which would certainly weaken its ability to respond to a prolonged crisis. This situation is difficult, because clearly there are not very many “good” options for the US. Hence why i have recommended the above mentioned course of action.

    Your argument concerning the people of the middle east seems to very generally look at current policies and their history. This is an interesting approach, though i chose to look at the issue through the prism of contentious east-west relations. Several pew polls (http://www.pewresearch.org/2005/11/10/arab-and-muslim-perceptions-of-the-united-states/) show that opinion of the US is still very low in the eyes of Muslims and Arabs, and while i do not agree that it is only because of religious antagonism, i do believe that plays an important role in influencing of public opinion, and public perception of US actions. Thus why the public does care that we only supported secular strong men in the past, like Mubarak, who were able to maintain a certain form of order through the use of oppressive and inhumane force.

    Now is an opportunity to change the approach that the US has taken towards solving some of our policy issues in the ME (and in the world in general), hence why i advocate the support of the Morsi government.

  3. Poi Dog Says:

    Excellent point of view by both the editor and responder. I do however, see that whatever side of the fence you choose to stand on there will not be resolve for the Egyptian people. The East’s opinion of the United States was broken down in the Bush era and I don’t see much change in the “O” era. There are always unresolved points when policies differ between religion and secularists. I think if the USA has to choose one side or the other, we will be seen as Imperialists any way you slice it. As frequently as we jump into these conflicts, We must remember it is their chosen conflict and not ours. Realizing what a pivotal point this is for us, and future relations in other countries, trying to democratize the East has already failed.

  4. hafiz sher ali Says:

    Egypt, like many other Muslim countries, has extended a positive response to the formulations forwarded by the US, but failure to support a reconciliation between the two sides appears to have wrecked the chances of peace and progress in the political advancement of the people in Egypt. Recent genocide let loose by the Regime will leave deep scars on the already bruised political and social landscape. The US may come forward as an honest ally to restrain the military from crushing the supporters of Morsi for ulterior motives. I agree with the views of the columnist.