Once again, the West’s contradictory Progressive values render clear thinking impossible, this time over recent upheaval in Egypt.
We just love Democracy, but radical Islamists won free and fair and we don’t like them. Military dictatorships, such as who arrested President Morsi and his cabinet, don’t sound like our kind either. Meanwhile millions march in protest all over Egypt, and Americans would hardly let that happen at home under the Patriot Act. Happily, the answers are simple for real conservatives unencumbered with ideology. First off, the problems have deep roots in American meddling.
After centuries of sometimes brutal colonial occupation by the French, British and Ottoman Turks, the 1950s Baathist movement set the tone for many Middle Eastern governments and not only Egypt; the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq are two more. It stressed Big Government nationalism, often with European fascist overtones but also inspired by harsh secular reforms in 1920s Turkey. The Egyptian version allied with the USSR until the 1979 Peace Accords with the US and Israel; thereafter America spent more than $50 billion on military and civilian aid to Egypt, virtually all under their recently deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak. All that US military training and equipment didn’t go to waste: he used it to oppress his middle classes.
Egypt’s radical Islamists (including the recently deposed Muslim Brotherhood) were of little concern being largely beyond Mubarak’s grasp, and they were useful bogeymen with which to scare America and Israel while justifying his despotism. The real threat was the emerging middle class; the schoolteachers and dentists and shopkeepers who wanted democracy. They were bribed with creature comforts and intimidated by suppressing reformist politics. Some of their children were repulsed and became terrorists, since they could neither rely on peaceful change nor trust ‘pro-democracy’ foreign allies who were against democracy for Egypt.
When Mubarak fell, the middle classes had no political organisation with which to compete against the well-organised Islamists, so they lost to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, which preached a new moderation which was not a lie, or not an intentional one. Then several things happened, each fairly invisible from afar.
First, perhaps unintentionally, Morsi reverted to type. Even had he thought himself to be a paragon of reasonableness, his political DNA is autocratic. Unlike heterodox Islam or ordinary Muslims, orthodox Islam is quite incompatible with democracy and any honest and educated Muslim will admit it.
Even in its many variants orthodox Islam (a) conforms to God’s wishes, not Man’s; and (b) micromanages life down to marital sexual relations, taxes, and a vast litany of other minutia chiefly revealed or devised 1,000-1,400 years ago. Among the Sunni majority most of it is beyond reinterpretation. Unlike Christ or Buddha, who each avoided political prescription to focus on redemption/enlightenment, Muslim orthodoxy allows no separation between the realms of Caesar and the divine. Many Muslim nations have and do ignore Islamic strictures on banking and interest payments, for example, but these are quietly acknowledged hypocrisies justified as modern necessity.
So autocracy is in the DNA of orthodox Muslims (i.e, Islamists, Salafis, Wahabis, etc), Morsi declared himself to be above the law and he was in no way acting out of character. Indeed, he surely believes in paternalist governance as the only path to decency; necessary to avoid populism, degeneracy and mob-rule. Millions protest in disagreement and here another pair of secrets is at work; pride and technology.
For a millennium, Egyptian Muslims have been cultural heroes across the Arab world. Cairo’s Sunni theological school, Al Azhar, is two centuries older than any Western university and is by Muslim reputation Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale combined. From fine art to literature and cinema, every Arab looks to Cairo and the Cairenes take vast pride in it. The urbanites don’t cotton to strict orthodoxy.
Secondly, media has changed Egyptian expectations nationwide. State-run semi-Soviet propaganda television is twenty years’ dead, while many now consume international digital broadcasting including networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and Internet news covering regional affairs that Western sources often ignore. This radicalises a minority (in the West and Middle East most terrorist youth came from educated and even privileged backgrounds) but also turned millions to protest what they feared as retrograde authoritarianism from Morsi. The vast majority of Egyptians seem to want materialism as much as democracy, another worry for Morsi and his ousted team
Enter the army. Cynical Western politicians and media, reporting that the army are merely cronies of Mubarak’s old regime, may miss a point. From Egypt in particular to Baathists overall, to a venerably kindred movement in Turkey, these armies stand for order and secularism in equal measure. While Egypt’s officer cadre no doubt have personal loyalties and professional debts to Mubarak’s people, there are older and maybe even stronger values at work too. This confuses Western Progressives, who often resent order and cannot understand anyone giving it top priority; so they accuse the Egyptian military of cronyism which our Progressives understand and often practice themselves.
Enter Western ideology in all of its self-contradictory glory. The “Democracy Always Comes First” guys collide with the “No, Israel Always Comes First” crowd, because the elected Islamists portended some (popular) conflicts over Palestinians. The gang “Always Against Military Rule” clash with fellow Progressives because the colonels are more supportive of women and minorities. Nobody knows which side is best against global warming or saving the desperately cute Egyptian Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) . American Imperialists sweat over which side to back with your tax-dollars: the elected leaders deposed, the military empowered, or some democratic consensus yet to emerge. What is a self-respecting Progressive to do when all sides have some kind of politically incorrect B.O.?
In some cases, all of these cognitive traffic accidents occur within the same Progressive human being and it may drive him to drink; to paraphrase an old Soviet joke, the inevitable stage before Progressivism may be Alcoholism
It seems plausible that the Egyptian army sense an emerging secular consensus, and seized power before Morsi could establish religious autocracy. They probably know that they cannot rule forever. It also seems plausible that the army will take its time to relinquish power; for even among honest people focused on order, reform tomorrow always looks safer than reform today. Either way will come as relief to Egypt’s ten million Copts, who otherwise would have been expelled as their fellow Christians were, with American compliance, from Iraq and are now from Syria.
This suggests an agenda for Western Progressives in general: go about building an ideological heaven (cough) at home and leave the Egyptians to muddle along. They preceded the pyramids, after all, and their shorter-lived civilisations still lasted longer than America has so far (as an Afghan cabinet minister-friend snapped at a pushy US diplomat: “we have carpets that are older than your whole country!”).
But what should the Yanqui Imperialistas do? I mean the NeoCons and the defence contractors and the dips and pols all wringing their hands. Obviously, back all sides and spend even more money. Then, when the Egyptians get settled, all groups can hate Americans equally. In a way it builds national unity.
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