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Eyeless in Cairo

Washington Diarist

Can one be for democracy in some states and against democracy in other states? As a matter of principle, of course not: democracy is universalism as a political order. It is premised on a certain conception of the individual and society, on an understanding of dignity and freedom that would be meaningless if it did not apply to all people. By bringing all people under a single philosophical description, it ignores, without regret, the social and economic and cultural distinctions among them. It equalizes. But policy, even when it is based in philosophy, is not philosophy; it cannot be indifferent to consequences. And the democratization of undemocratic societies is emphatically a policy of destabilization. In the anarchy of the attempt, all kinds of evils may be loosed. Unfree people dream of more than just freedom; they dream also of power, and vengeance, and exclusiveness, and heaven. The end of absolutism liberates them for their own absolutes, which may cause great suffering. Is the standpoint of the democratizer, then, too narrow, and is the universalist too blind? Do the costs of democratization ever outweigh the benefits? In the calculation of these costs and these benefits, in this encounter with the problem known as the “incommensurability of values,” are there instances when we would be right to choose against democracy? I recognize the arrogance in choosing such a destiny for other peoples, but a policy of democratization is also such a choice and no less tainted by such an arrogance. We cannot escape the responsibility of our influence.

In these terms I wrestled for a long time with the question of the democratization of Egypt. The authoritarian immobilism of the Mubarak regime lacks all legitimacy. But in view of the alternative, does it lack all utility? The question is not cynical. The parliamentary elections last week were preceded by a repression: Mubarak’s National Democratic Party cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting 1,200 of its supporters and barring some of its candidates from running. Then came the election, in which the Muslim Brotherhood, which had 88 members in parliament, discovered that its number of seats had been reduced to zero. This wild fraud is a premonition of what awaits Egypt in its presidential election next year. The outrage is obvious. But so is the complication. In standing up for the opposition, for the victims of the dictator, we are standing up for the Muslim Brotherhood. Consider the consequences of its ascension to power. There can be no doubt about the undemocratic uses that the Muslim Brotherhood has for democracy: Egypt will have been opened up to be shut down. I know that the smart thing to say about these religious radicals (and about others in the Middle East) is that they are sophisticated and pragmatic and themselves agents of a kind of modernization—this view made its appearance many decades ago in the conclusion of Richard P. Mitchell’s extraordinary study The Society of the Muslim Brothers, where, pointing to the Brothers’ “Western-type suits” and their acceptance of science and technology, he declared that they represent “an effort to reinstitutionalize religious life for those whose commitment to the tradition and religion is still great, but who at the same time are already effectively touched by the forces of Westernization”—but this is an anti-modern modernity; an adaptation, not a transformation. Political theology has always been a mixture of inflexibility in beliefs and flexibility in tactics. The effects of a Muslim Brotherhood regime upon Egypt’s relations with Israel, and therefore upon the stability of the entire region, may also be devastating. Israel already endures two borders with hostile Islamist theocrats. Should it endure a third such border, and with the largest Arab state? The incommensurability of values, indeed. This seems like a choice between democracy and peace.

Those were my doubts. Insofar as they seemed to justify an exception to my strong preference for the universalism of the democratic ideal, they were a moral embarrassment. But in recent months I have become increasingly convinced by another consideration. It is that the Muslim Brotherhood’s surest road to power in Egypt lies in the absence of any political reform. It is Mubarak who, by alienating his people and denying their rights, will bring the worst to pass. We have been here before. I still recall the catastrophic fall of American policy toward Iran in 1979. We had looked away, and condoned, and prevaricated, and excused—and only when it was too late, when the Shah was gone—what did it matter that he was a friend of the United States and a friend of Israel, if he doomed those friendships by his manner of governance?—and Khomeini’s mobs were taking over the streets—only then did we seek an alternative. Now I have the sickening feeling that if the United States continues to acquiesce in Mubarak’s tyranny, we will soon be searching Cairo for its Bakhtiar, and then wondering who lost Egypt.


But the Obama administration is unrattled by these precedents and these probabilities. Its complacence is exemplified by Hillary Clinton, who last year responded to a report by her own State Department that Mubarak’s “respect for human rights remained poor” by grotesquely declaring that “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” and this year pointedly refused to raise the matter of political reform in her meeting with Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister. Last week The Guardian published a long Wikileaked cable, of February 9, 2009, from Margaret Scobey, our ambassador in Cairo, to the secretary of state. Aboul Gheit, Scobey wrote, “may not raise human rights (specifically Ayman Nour), political reform, or democratization; but you should.” And: “You should press Aboul Gheit hard on Nour and [Said] Ibrahim, and also urge the GOE [government of Egypt] to stop arresting other less prominent activists. ... You may wish to lay down a marker for a future discussion on democratization and human rights.” After all, the United States has leverage over Egypt: we give it billions. But for the Obama administration, in the matter of human rights, it is surtout pas de zèle. (Cf. the neo-Soviet fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.) The cool, bumbling heads at the top do not grasp that it is realism that now demands political reform. Or conversely, that there are times when idealism is a variety of prudential thinking.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the December 30, 2010, issue of the magazine.