The prospect of a new government in Egypt opens huge uncertainties for the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. At this point, no one can predict what that new government will be. But it is clear that there will be substantial change, even if Mubarak hangs on. A military regime is possible. A transition government, perhaps led by Mohamed ElBaradei, leading to democratic elections also seems possible–and would be the best outcome.
Notwithstanding the uncertainties, it is worthwhile to think more about the implications. In the long term, the events of last week would seem to mean more democracy or at least more democratic input into government in Egypt. Regardless, any new government will likely mean leaders less willing to do the bidding of the U.S., whether because of their own beliefs or because of the force of popular sentiment. (Certainly an important undercurrent in the journalistic reporting has been strong anti-American sentiments expressed by many of the protesters.) It is good that American policymakers seem to realize this. President Obama is quoted as stating several times at a high level meeting yesterday that “the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events”–or, in my view, much influencing them.
In the longer term, the U.S. needs to accept the likelihood that a new Egyptian government might be “anti-American” and anti-Israeli. Certainly this is likely if elected democracy eventually ensues. Given huge, decades-long U.S. support for the unpopular and illegitimate government, it would be surprising if Egyptians felt differently. The result is likely to be an Egyptian government which–surprise, surprise–does not share American foreign policy preferences. Whether or not this is a more Islamically-influenced government matters less than the fact that it could better reflect popular sentiment in Egypt.
The U.S. has had a difficult time accepting the possibility that “Islamist” or even radical governments might actually be put in office by free and fair elections–by thinking people who see no better alternative in their societies. U.S. opposition to the duly elected, Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 is an obvious case in point. But it is not necessarily the case that Islamist governments are so hostile to democratic values that after winning election they would destroy democracy. Nor is it the case that, faced with the reality of governance, they would be unwilling to compromise. Leaving aside the irony of such views when the U.S. has long supported our own set of Arab autocrats like Mubarak, experience in other parts of the world suggests that governments influenced or run by Islamically influenced political parties are not necessarily hostile to democracy and can be pragmatic. Turkey is an obvious case in point.
Overall, the fact that soon we may no longer have pliable, autocratic clients in Egypt, Tunisia, and possibly other North African and Middle Eastern countries is, on balance, a good thing notwithstanding risks of short-term violence. First, a more autonomous Egypt–or even simply a more unstable one–could exert greater pressure on Israel, expressly or tacitly, to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. Added to American presidents’ ineffective “good cop” pressure on Israel will be another neighborhood “bad cop” that might help change the calculus of negotiation even among the Israeli right. It is of course unclear how that might play itself out. But a more democratic or more Islamically-influenced government will not necessarily mean war in the Middle East—and might even add pressure on Israel that would help promote peace.
Second, this and the Tunisian revolt once again demonstrate the force of “people power” seemingly untied to strong civil society associations. Although the power of “spontaneous” nationwide popular revolts, whether made possible by new or old media, is ephemeral, it can of course have great effect—as centuries of revolution attest.
But the lesson for students of civil society—and for the American and other governments that seek to foster civil society–is broader. When revolutionary moments end, civil society organizations probably will play an important role. But in Egypt and other Islamic countries, a freer civil society is unlikely to look much like America’s.
This seems to trouble U.S. policymakers. Consider this recent remark of Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor: “We should not press for early elections. We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.” Hadley tacitly acknowledges that there are civil society groups in Egypt already—only, problematically in his view, they and opposition political parties are often tied to Islam. That is in part a reflection of real sentiments on the ground, although in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been caught flat-footed by the popular revolt. It also reflects the kind of regime the U.S. has helped maintain in power with billions in aid for decades—one that has repressed much of Egyptian civil society, notwithstanding American lip-service favoring democracy.
A revived Egyptian civil society will not be wholly or perhaps even predominantly secular. Islamic organizations are likely to hold considerable sway. But there is no reason to fear or denigrate religiously-based civil society organizations. American civil society is of course replete with religious groups, and they exert great influence in politics. The fact that in the Middle East and North Africa these will inevitably by Muslim organizations is not necessarily problematic either. As long as they are willing to play by democratic rules, their presence should be welcomed. And many Islamic movements are willing to do so.
Finally and most broadly, an Egyptian transition unexpected by American officials would reinforce the need to curb American hubris about its role in the world. Too much of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment believes and acts as if the U.S. has the right and the ability to manipulate other countries’ political systems, “in our favor.” This has created vast distortions in our own political system, starting with grossly outsized defense budgets completely disproportionate to the threats we face. For all that, we have never been able to “control” events overseas, as the Iranian revolution against America’s good friend the Shah demonstrated decades ago.
Leaving aside moral issues of America’s acting as if we are the world’s “indispensable nation,” the events in North Africa should again emphasize that we see no further into the future, and stand no taller than other nations–notwithstanding Madeline Albright’s delusions of grandeur. And because we cannot control events in other countries, we should curb our penchant for trying to do so.