When Will They Ever Learn?
Mohammed Morsi is the declared winner of Egypt's elections. There is much to say here, but I can't stop thinking about one overwhelming question: When, oh when, will people, Western, non-Western, finally get it through their heads that democracy doesn't happen overnight? That elections are, both analytically and as a practical matter, the last and not the first step in democratization? That electoral democracy is meaningless in the absence of the rule of law and civil society, and both have to operate in somce long-term dialogue with a country's history and culture? Why is this so hard to understand?
When I was working in the State Department, we would try, in off-the-record moments, to raise issues of human rights with the Egyptians and make the argument that without some greater political openness their internal pressures would build, intolerably. Stop pushing us, they would say, or you'll get the Muslim Brotherhood in our place. So we didn't push them, the Mubarak autocracy kept on, and on, and on (as Bob Kaplan once remarked, it would be like Gerald Ford still being President—and Bob said this a decade and a half ago) the Obama administration cut Mubarak loose with little thought for what would come after, and in the end we got, well, the Muslim Brotherhood.
How will things with the Brotherhood work out? I certainly don't know and doubt anyone else does. A pet argument in some policy circles is that assuming power moderates Islamists. That has yet to be proven anywhere. Once in power ideological purity does have to make some room for realpolitik, but realpolitik is not moderation.Secular nationalist pan-Arab regimes have in the last year and a half been shown for the mere carapaces that they were, and the deeper currents of religion, and ethnicity, are reasserting themselves as organizing principles throughout the Middle East (and in some ways in Israel too). Indeed, the monarchies are, weirdly enough, looking to be among the most stable entities around. The abiding quality of ethnicity and religion should remind us of other abiding truths: that political cultures come into being slowly, that basics like the rule of law, respect for the rights of minorities and for human dignity have to be worked for, cultivated, intepreted, preserved and when necessary, fought for, over and over again, with each new generation even as the immediate, Hobbesian challenges of preventing violence and maintaining order crowd the foreground and concentrate our minds. Those are lessons for us, and for others, the orienting horizon as we stumble down this new and very uncertain stretch of the road.