No Bright Lines

Les Gelb's Challenging, Wise Words on Egypt

08.20.13 10:21 AM ET

Most people don't want to hear this, I think, but my colleague Les Gelb puts a morally difficult case very well in his Beast column, in which he argues that the least bad choice for the United States in Egypt--in terms of trying to help that country move to real democracy, as opposed to thinking narrowly of US security interests or whatever--is to stick with the military and try to reform it. We have, he argues, some shot at influencing the military, but no shot at all of influencing the Brotherhood.

Les, take it from here:

Let’s get real and tamp down the moral posturing about democracy in Egypt. Freely elected President Morsi and his now-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government weren’t practicing democracy. They were co-opting the laws and slowly destroying all possible opposition. Besides, they were aligning with America’s jihadist enemies in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Egypt’s military leaders, no democratic sweethearts either, are aligned with moderates, need Washington more than the Islamists, and back U.S. interests on the Suez Canal and Israel. Americans rightly can’t stand the military street slaughters. For sure, bloody casualties will mount. But the United States has some modest chance to influence the military in right directions. It has little or no chance of saving Egypt for democracy if the Islamists return to power.

I think that's pretty hard to argue with. Then, a little later, more on the Islamists:

Where are the reminders about how President George W. Bush paved the way for free elections in the Gaza Strip, how Hamas won, and how, then, democracy there came to an end and terrorism made a full comeback? Where are the explanations of what is happening in the great nation of Turkey? Democratically elected Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slowly but surely jailed Turkey’s general officer corps, the guardians of secular society, and begun Islamizing the country while curtailing democratic rights. Which is worse: when the military overthrows democratically elected governments, no matter how undemocratic, or when a democratically elected government destroys democracy with “legitimate” power? These are not questions America’s commentariat or elected representatives in Congress care to speak of, let alone grapple with.

The Islamists understand American culture far better than the Egyptian moderates, and they’re much better propagandists. They know how deeply Americans are repelled by the killings, so don’t put it past them to provoke and stage the killings for the television cameras. They want martyrs. They want the cameras and the carnage, and Americans are reacting like good Americans: with outrage.

Part of my original position, my support for the coup in early July, was based on thoughts like the above. I had and have zero faith in the Brotherhood to create or nuture or give a shit about a democratic society. As Gelb notes, they spent the year they had in power doing all they could to consolidate and wipe out (not physically but materially) the opposition. It's their opponents whose side I'm on, and whose side Westerners, liberals especially, should be on. (By the way, I did not renounce my support for the coup, as some people on Twitter concluded; I acknowledged that it looked pretty bad after the bloodbaths last week, and I wanted my readers to know that I was aware that I'd taken a position that wasn't holding up well to events. But on balance, I am more opposed to the Brotherhood than to the generals.)

Anyway, today comes another Beast colleague, Josh Rogin, to report that Pat Leahy is saying that the Obama administration effectively has ended most military aid but just isn't saying so publicly. Apparently some parts of the aid are on temporary hold. Maybe the idea there is to be able to say to them, "You want the money, you do A, B, and C." Of course who knows whether that will work.

We have no idea what influence we have in Egypt. I read a lot of people bemoaning this, and, sure, the administration has made some errors--as Gelb notes, calling for fast elections back in 2010, when it was clear that the Brotherhood was the only political grouping able to organize its forces that quickly. But let's remember this: The days when we had leverage over Egypt were the days when it was a dictatorship with no elections and a pretty fearsome secret police. If that's the price of leverage, I say let's not have it. The Arab transformation is going to be messy and lengthy, but there is no choice but to support it.