What Is Going On In Egypt?

Over the past week, swelling protests in Egypt against the ruling regime boiled over, finally giving way to violence. Clashes erupted between secularists (who are aligned with the military) and Islamists (who are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood); eventually Mohamed Morsi was ousted from the Presidency, exactly one year after he was democratically elected to the office. Egypt now stands on the brink of descending into full-blown chaos, and while Egyptians attempt to move the nation “back to democracy,” they risk losing their whole nation to civil war. This past week has left some wondering what Egyptian democracy even means anymore.

Instead of utilizing the ballot box, Egyptians rejected the democratic means available to achieve their ends by ousting Morsi with a military coup (maybe - more on that in a bit). Morsi supporters responded in kind by taking to the streets in counterprotests, and the Egyptian military responded by massacring 51 Islamist protesters. Still, Egyptians hold out hope for peace and democracy; elections are planned six months from now, which - in a nation where paradigms shift in a matter of weeks, if not days - is a long time from now.

So what’s going on? In a broader sense, two things:

  1. A national identity crisis: Egypt is caught between modernity and fundamentalism. Most of the literate (about 70%, which is low) and the youth in Egypt want to move the nation toward democracy, but fundamentalist culture weighs heavy on Egyptian society. Check out these photos of Cairo University’s graduating classes over the last 50 years to see what I mean.
  2. If - and this is a big if - a transition to a democracy takes place in Egypt, it’s going to take a long time, as all democratic transitions do, even those without the added complications of #1 above. A thumbrule I once learned: it takes 6 months to liberate an economic structure, 6 years to liberate the political structure, but 60 years to liberate a culture. Basically the older generation has to die off. This is what we’ve seen in the Soviet Union; ingrained impulses take a while to go away. It’s going to take a while in Egypt, too.

The situation in Egypt presents a particular dilemma for the United States: If it is decided that, indeed, it was a coup that overthrew Morsi, $1.5 billion in foreign aid would be halted. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been an often-lonely advocate for halting foreign aid to Egypt; now, his position may be gaining traction. Jim Antle writes:

Oddly, one Republican senator who may now be on Paul’s side is John McCain. “Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” McCain said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

McCain, an advocate for democracy promotion, originally did not want the Muslim Brotherhood involved in any transition government. Now he says their overthrow must trigger a chance in U.S. policy.

“It was a coup, and it was the second time in two-and-a-half years that we have seen the military step in,” the old maverick said. “It is a strong indicator of a lack of American leadership and influence.”

Yet the reaction of a bipartisan gaggle of other senators on the Sunday talk suggests Washington is likely to try very hard to wriggle out of its legal bind on aid to Egypt, and it is possible that Congress will move to waive foreign-aid stipulations in this particular case.

Paul and McCain might make a strange bedfellows’ coalition on Egypt aid. More telling will be where grassroots conservatives stand now that the Muslim Brotherhood is gone.

Ramadan beginning this week brings added hope that violence can cool off, the human rights of opponents are protected, and an actual democratic process takes root in Egypt. Although optimism remains difficult, Dalibor Rohac of Cato Institute writes that, Egypt can be saved by focusing on the economy: “The next leader of Egypt will have the opportunity to lift millions of Egyptians out of poverty and open the economy to entrepreneurship, trade and investment.” Here’s hoping.

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