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The Lessons of Cairo

Egypt, America, and democracy.

The spread of democracy around the world is a natural American aspiration, but sometimes the sincerity of that aspiration is tested by the disruptions of democratization. The astonishing events in Egypt are such a test. They are so thrilling in their purpose and so unclear in their outcome. They provoke exhilaration and anxiety. But they demonstrate to a new generation that the democratic longing is itself one of history’s most powerful causes. And, for the United States, they make clear that the spread of democracy is not only a matter of morality, but also a matter of strategy.

The events in Egypt have created confusion in the American foreign policy debate. Some conservatives who were only recently champions of Middle Eastern democracy rushed to defend Mubarak. (Dick Cheney called the Egyptian dictator “a good friend.”) Others on the right were more consistent—applauding the protesters for their stand against autocracy. On the left, erstwhile skeptics of democracy promotion hailed the pro-democracy protesters as heroes, and lambasted their erstwhile ally in the White House for failing to denounce the Egyptian regime. Then there were the statements of Obama himself. He seemed irresolute in the early days of the protests, suddenly uncomfortable with the global leadership that was being asked of him, not least by the brave people in Tahrir Square. He issued platitudes about liberty, but declined to make a forceful public stand against Mubarak.

We understand the impulse toward caution: Chaos in Egypt could bring some decidedly undemocratic people to power, this time with theocratic inclinations. This is a nerve-wracking moment. But, as a practical matter, the United States cannot base its policy on nostalgia for a discredited autocrat whose days in office are numbered. Is it realism that is needed? Then let us have realism, which demands that we align ourselves—and our enormous influence upon the Egyptian government and the Egyptian army—with the Egypt that is emerging, and with the attempt to assist it toward a secular democracy.

Democratization is an American interest. This is not only for philosophical and ethical reasons, which should be self-evident, but also for concrete ones. And democratization as a pillar of American foreign policy does not mean invasions and covert ops; it means that we support and encourage the citizens of an authoritarian polity who have been aroused to struggle for democracy on their own. Most people struggle for democracy because they wish to live a dignified life, in openness and in prosperity, not because they wish to replace one tyranny with another. Historically speaking, we want such liberalizers on our side. America backed Mubarak despite our country’s ideals; we have been hypocrites in this regard, and the Egyptian people know it. And yet the courageous men and women in Tahrir Square nonetheless seek our support, because they know, too, that we are, in the unfettered way we conduct our politics and our society and our economy, the most fully realized example of what they want. Except in extreme instances, the United States will not advance its long-term interests by preferring regimes to peoples. More years of Mubarak, and more months of American unclarity, will only increase resentment toward the United States among Egyptians. The country’s least liberal factions will benefit from this public mood—which, in turn, will be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy.

Now, the hard question. What if, in promoting democracy in the Arab world, we find ourselves acquiescing in the inclusion of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the new arrangements? Would this not be both a moral and a strategic disaster? A number of commentators have waved away the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, arguing that the group is not actually as radical as everyone thinks. Whatever the evolution of the movement since the hideousness of Hassan Al Banna, it strikes us as glib to dismiss the worry about its participation in an Egyptian government. It is true that a majority of Egyptians and a majority of the protesters do not want the Islamists in power; but the 30 percent of the electorate that the Muslim Brotherhood commands is not trivial. We are supposed to be reassured because the Brotherhood opposes Al Qaeda. Good for them-but what about women’s rights? Religious freedom? The treaty with Israel?

And yet we are where we are. Mubarak is over. He was not overthrown by the Islamists. And the Islamists owe what social power they possess to him and his asphyxiation of his society. So we find ourselves at one of those historical moments that bring to mind Frost’s adage that “the best way out is always through.”

We recognize that liberal democracies do not spring up overnight. Where decades of cruel autocracy have devastated civil society, diplomatic skill will be required for the pangs of transition. But this diplomacy must be based on the recognition that the breakthrough of the liberal democratic temper in Egypt is not only a crisis for the United States, but also an opportunity. Cairo has taken its place alongside Budapest and Prague as one of the modern capitals of liberal revolt. Now we must do everything we can to keep this liberal revolt liberal.

This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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