I promised you yesterday, dear reader, a post arguing that the Manichean pro- and anti-democracy polarity with which most Americans think about the situation in Egypt is deeply and dangerously misguided. I promised, as well, an argument to the effect that this view is an expression of a secularized evangelism anchored in the Western/Christian mythical, salvationist idea of progress, and that its unselfconscious use says a great deal more about what’s wrong with us than about what’s wrong with Egyptians. I will fulfill that promise and more—maybe too much more for some tastes. But first a little scene-setting.
Yesterday morning I went over to Carnegie to listen to Senator Carl Levin talk about Syria on a basis of a recent trip he and Senator Angus King of Maine took to Jordan and Turkey. On Syria, Senator Levin has turned into a liberal hawk a year and a half too late, in my view. To prevent Syria from becoming a failed or a split state that would give aid and comfort and room to plot to terrorist groups, he wants lots of lethal U.S. aid delivered to assist the anti-Assad insurgency in Syria, and he wants the U.S. military, in the context of a wide coalition understanding not yet achieved, to attack Syrian artillery and air bases with standoff weapons (so as to avoid having first to fly approximately 700 sorties to take down Syria’s integrated air-defense system). The purpose of this is to level the battlefield so that diplomacy can arrange an inclusive, post-Assad reconstruction of Syrian politics and society. He assumes that radical sectarianism is foreign to Syria, and that a new compact would rid the country of both Sunni and Shi’a foreign fanatics in the pay of neighboring states. He also assumes that because of this compact, no extensive international peacekeeping force or reconstruction effort will be required—not only no boots on the ground, but not even all that many shoes on the ground. Naturally, he is somewhat vexed that other Senators do not see things his way, and are trying to obstruct the shipment of weapons to the Syrian insurgents. But he a very good-natured and well-intentioned man, and so does not appear nearly as vexed as he actually is.
In my view, Senator Levin’s proposal belies a certain naiveté about Syria. As my more loyal readers would know, I sympathized with some of Senator Levin’s points a year and more ago, before the situation had metastasized within the country and spread toxins without. Then the risks of acting were relatively small, and the benefits prospectively large; now the risks are huge and the benefits deeply uncertain. But never mind that; he’s wrong on the facts.
First, the ability to reliably destroy targets of the kind he identifies with standoff weapons is questionable. Libya is an island from a military point of view. Every target worth hitting can be hit from a naval platform. Syria’s topography and demographic realities are another matter. I’m a big fan of cruise missiles fired from Aegis cruisers, too; I saw a test-firing of one once from the deck of the USS Farragut a few years ago and it was tres cool, believe me. But I am skeptical that standoff weapons can do in Syria what Senator Levin thinks they can do. General Dempsey, can you please enlighten us on this point?
Second, the early 1980s Sunni radicalism that led Bashar al-Assad’s father to level the town of Hama in 1982 was almost entirely homegrown, not foreign. Syrians are more than capable of radical capture, especially in the current dire circumstances. When people’s backs are up against the wall, radicals thrive and moderates melt away.
Moreover, third, the good Senator seems not to know much of the history of Syria from as recently as the 1950s. Syrians are more than capable of deadly fissiparous tendencies for reasons that have nothing to do with sectarian disagreements. The mutually antagonistic Sunni merchant/political elite of that era, from Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, were so venal, smarmy and just downright short-sighted and greedy that their internecine squabbles nearly led to the small but Leninist-disciplined Syrian Communist Party seizing control of the government. That is why, in desperation, the army and a few associated civilian politicians essentially gave the country to Gamal Abdel Nasser on Egypt’s terms, forming in 1958 the short-lived United Arab Republic. In this light, the fact that today’s Sunni Syrian opposition to Assad has not been able to pull itself together after two years of dire necessity to do so comes as no surprise, except of course to those who know nothing of Syria’s history (which would be, at last glance, the entire political class of the United States).
Speaking of Egypt, as we just have, Senator Levin was asked during the Q&A whether he would call what has happened in Egypt a coup. He immediately answered “yes”, and said that the U.S. government should suspend aid to Egypt in consequence, as the law requires. Lawyer that he is, he spent a few moments detailing what the law says. He has been joined in this view (without the details) by Senator Feinstein and others, but this view has not persuaded the President—which, as I see it, is a good thing, of which more below.
And so now the scene is set, well enough for government work anyway, as the saying goes. What Americans care about overwhelmingly, it seems, is whether the Egyptian Army overthrew a democratically elected government, and, if it did, whether a law pertaining to such circumstances should be applied or not. Levin’s answer is “yes”, and “yes.” President Obama’s answer, as best anyone can tell, is “maybe”, and “no.” My answer is “probably”, but “this is the wrong question to be focused on.”
The right question to be focused on is how U.S. interests in Egypt and the broader region are best served right now, and of course that presupposes a firm idea of what those interests are. Arguing over whether what happened was a coup, a “people’s coup”, a corrective movement for the famed January 25 Revolution, or whatever, is an example of autistic political thinking: It doesn’t relate to the relevant context, otherwise known as reality. Arguing then about what a law (that, if I had my way, would not exist) says we must do now is glass-bead-game material in the face of the significant stakes at hand. This does not surprise me either, since we have vastly more lawyers in this town than we have people who know how to think strategically. This is just what lawyers do.
What are our interests? Our interests include, in my view in this order, first, making sure Egypt does not descend into a Hobbesean nightmare, a civil war with no frontlines, no food, no medicine, no mercy. With the rest of the region mostly aflame these days, we cannot abide the distraction of a collapsing Egypt, not least since that pulls us back toward a region where we are trying for good reason to do less. (Note to the wise: Less is not nothing. The either/or way the so-called pivot to Asia has been commonly interpreted is deeply stupid; the real world doesn’t work like that.)
Second, we need a stable Egypt to maintain the geopolitical status quo via its peace treaty with Israel, and to be part of a loose Sunni coalition against Iranian hegemonic pretensions. Egypt is not as important as a cultural pacesetter or as an engaged leader in regional diplomacy as it once was, and that was true even before the fall of Mubarak. But at 83 million it is still by far the largest Arab country, and it is still very important. The fact that it has been at peace with Israel since March 1979, and that it has been, and retains the capacity to be, a model of pious and modern Islam, not fanatical, politicized and atavistic Islam, is of enormous importance to the future of the Arab and Islamic “worlds” (the word “world” used very advisedly since it may imply a homogeneity that does not exist).
Third, we need Egypt to cooperate with us and others to fight terrorism. Terrorism of the 9/11 variety has failed to rise to the level of an existential threat to the United States. That’s good. But the threat has hardly disappeared, and the fact that we have been diligently working, often with others, to keep track of and, when necessary, kill bad guys is part of the reason we have not suffered more from this scourge in the past decade than we otherwise might have. This is no time to prematurely declare “mission accomplished” (again), and Egypt is important in this fight for many reasons. Egypt is a seedbed of the problem; it is where the muscle and brains for al-Qaeda came from in the form of exiled al-Gama’a al-Islamiya cadres and the Egyptian chapter of al-Jihad al-Islamiya led by the still-breathing-and-at-large Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Egyptian intelligence folks have lots of information on people of interest, and they grasp the modi operandi of these guys better than we do. Beyond that, Egypt is responsible geographically, physically, for policing Sinai and the tunnels of egress and ingress under the border to Hamasistan in Gaza. (Why and how Egyptian intelligence under the guidance of Omar Suleiman during the Mubarak era played a double game with Israel over the tunnels is an interesting subject but one beyond the scope of this note.) These are two of the most combustible and dangerous staging areas for terrorism today. And of course Egypt could be a source of future problems in this regard if the Army overreacts and needlessly drives Islamists to violence.
Now, if these are the main American interests in Egypt (stability, geopolitics and culture model, anti-terrorism cooperation), what does the coup and the law concerning U.S. aid have to do with all this? In the interests of brevity, the answer can be put simply: The Egyptian Army is the best available, if far short of ideal, vehicle for protecting these interests. Only the Army (and police) can stop a civil war from getting started, assuming they are not stupid enough to instead be the catalyst for one. Only the Army can administer a centralized state apparatus that, unfortunately, is what Egypt is stuck with right now. Only the Army can assure the Israelis and others on geopolitical and anti-terrorism issues. Morsi didn’t do so bad on these portfolios, it is true, but he did not (yet) control the army or the intelligence services. And only the Army was able to stop the march toward a salafist state that would have destroyed, perhaps for a very long time, Egypt’s ability to be the right kind of Sunni Islamic model to the region and the world.
At the present parlous moment, only the Army, standing behind a very thin civilian façade, can do what needs to be done, which is also why it should not be rushing to new elections. This portfolio will take a little time—a year or two, I would estimate. I hope the Army will act as a Praetorian guard for the construction of a more pluralist polity during this period, as I have said before. But this construction, too, will take time—for reasons I will detail below. So if we suspend aid until democracy is restored, we make two absurd errors at once: We forfeit critical leverage now, and we rush the transition period to everyone’s likely regret. Our aid is the better part of our leverage, and this would be absolutely the worst time to give it away out of some abstract attachment to misguided democracy worship. I think, I hope, that the President understands this. As for rushing to another disastrous experience with “democracy” before the people and their institutions are ready for it, I’m afraid that a Yiddish proverb jumps involuntarily into my mind, which translates as: “Never show a fool a half-finished job.”
Now, please understand—and this is admittedly a little nuanced—that that does not justify the coup, and my understanding is that U.S. crisis management rightly tried to mediate a resolution short of an outright coup. The coup raises all sorts of downstream problems, to be sure. Certainly the incapacity of MB administrative cadres in the Morsi government I wrote about in an earlier post does not itself justify supporting authoritarian intrusions into Egyptian politics. But when faced with a President Morsi who would not see reason and an Egyptian Army it could then not stop—and knew it would have to work with just a day or two hence—the Administration wisely did not wax petulant but recognized and accommodated reality on the ground.
We don’t have to like the coup to recognize its current utility. We don’t have to justify it to make use of it. I regret that Senators Levin, Feinstein and others don’t see it that way.
OK, that was the simple part. Now comes the challenging part. Fasten yourself securely; this will be a bumpy ride for some of you.
Why do Americans care that Egypt, or any other country, is a democracy? If we are exceptional because we Americans have an America that is better and more wondrous than any other country, then why do we want or expect others who are not exceptional to be like us? Before you strain yourself to smithereens trying to answer that question, we would do well to remind ourselves of the pragmatic reasons often adduced by Americans and others who both want to and think we can export democracy to others. The way they have preached it over the years—and again, I use that verb advisedly for reasons that will come clear below—two basic arguments stand out: prosperity and peace.
There is a school of thought which argues that democracy conduces to market economics, which in turn is the key to prosperity. Freedom and capitalism are twins in this conception, and the causal arrows point both ways. Democracy augers for a small and limited state, which allows the market to work its magic, and that magic creates the storied middle class that is the irreplaceable ballast for democratic politics.
There is a lot to be said for this theory, at least in certain cases in certain societies, and there is even some social science evidence for part of it—so it does not live entirely in the realm of secular mythology. But the idea that markets left unregulated are always self-innoculated against corruption, the pernicious logic of collective action and Michels’s famous “iron law” of oligarchy is indeed mythic. Such markets in societies that lack broad social trust, pre-existent egalitarian attitudes and some semblance of the rule of law will not necessarily produce a democratically inclined middle class. And middle classes do not in turn always covet the openness of democratic politics. Once they get their mitts on the means of production and distribution in a political economy, they have been known to seek rentier arrangements and barriers to entry to protect their status from aspiring others. The utopianesque belief, of which libertarians of a certain sort are most fond but that Adam Smith himself disdained, that capitalism and democracy are always and automatically mutually reinforcing is simply bunk. To keep the two in balance takes never-ending, clear-eyed political struggle, with no guarantee, ever, of success.
Consider: Did a year of supposed democracy make Egypt richer? Did it enlarge Egypt’s middle class? Unfair questions, maybe—since these dynamics take time to work out, if work out they ever do. But the obvious answers are “no” and “hell no.” And in Egypt’s case there is simply no evidence that a democratically legitimated Muslim Brotherhood-shaped political economy would ever have solved Egypt’s material distress—not that the corrupt patronage system of the military bureaucracy has or can either.
So much for the prosperity argument on behalf of exporting democracy; what about the peace argument? This argument comes in two classic forms: the Kantian and the Tocquevillian. It was Emmanuel Kant, not Thomas Friedman with his McDonald’s Theory of world peace, who argued that democracies would not make war on other democracies. Kant argued this from the abstract deontological heights, as he was prone to argue everything (and which might explain why he never married). Of course, he had little choice since at the time there were too few democracies to test his hypothesis. Tocqueville, on the other hand, argued the point from sociology. To simplify a bit, he thought democratic publics would be too mercantile, if not also too sentimental, to risk profits fighting stupid wars against useful trading partners—and so they would restrain their leaders in that regard.
Democratic peace theory, like democratic prosperity theory, is not entirely ridiculous. Both the Kantian and the Tocquevillian approaches tempt our approbation. But again, it all depends on context. Young populist democracies tend to be especially bellicose, and they do not always aim their energies at autocracies or dictatorships. Greece’s original proto-democratic city-states made war on each other with alacrity. The United States under President Madison attacked Canada in 1812 and burnt York (now Toronto) to the ground. (Some say that either the United States or Britain were not “really” democracies at the time, and thus try to dodge the negative evidence—but that is obviously bunk, too.)
And Egypt? Well, according to press reports, in this case reliable ones, what sent General al-Sisi and his associates over the top were two incidents in June, one in which senior Muslim Brotherhood officials urged President Morsi to attack Ethiopia to prevent them from damming the Nile. The second concerned a speech given by Morsi, apparently under the influence of a highly inflammatory sermon by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, that the Egyptian Army be sent to fight a jihad against the heretical Alawi-ruled state in Syria. Just as Egypt failed to grow more prosperous under the Morsi government, it failed decidedly to grow more peaceful in its foreign policy inclinations.
In all fairness, there is also a third pragmatic argument for democracy: anti-terrorism. This is the gist of the Bush 43 Administration’s “forward strategy for freedom”, which was underpinned by the conviction that political repression is what caused Islamist terrorism. Fix the “democracy deficit” and you would pull out the root of terrorist violence. Again, this idea is not entirely crazy, though it ought to be obvious that the timetables for exporting democracy to more than two dozen countries and protecting ourselves again another 9/11 don’t even begin to match up. But even besides that, the idea is certainly superficial and it is also mostly wrong. Political repression, along with poverty and other factors, have been enablers of terrorism, true; but these are not the cause of chiliastic religious violence either now or in the past. (I discuss this subject at length in “Comte’s Caveat: How We Misunderstand Terrorism”, Orbis, Summer 2008, as have others elsewhere, and I am not about to repeat the analysis here. Go look it up if you just can’t stand not to know.)
Ah, but these pragmatic reasons for loving, adoring, worshipping and wanting to spread democracy hither and yon are not the real reasons for the American obsession with it. And they are not the real reasons that have caused the democracy obsession to animate and distort current discussions of Egypt policy. So what are those reasons?
Americans think they live in a secular society, one in which faith is privatized and in which church and state are separate. In lots of ways this is true, but in lots of ways it isn’t. The stark distinction between the secular and the religious masks the fact that in the history of ideas, suffused with emotion and moral reasoning as it inevitably is, nothing is ever lost. As I have written before (most vividly, I think, in my “Reflections on the 9/11 Decade”, TAI Online, September 1, 2011), the best way to understand U.S. foreign policy is, as the late Michael Kelly once put it, as “secular evangelism, armed.” American foreign policy is, as James Kurth has brilliantly and incisively written, a product of “the Protestant Deformation”, a declension of a religious worldview, complete with logical train and eschatological pretensions, but rendered systematically into secular language that masks its real source. As G.K. Chesterton said, America is indeed a nation with the soul of a church—and not just any church, but a multi-sectarian Protestant one.
On balance, this has been a good thing for America. That church has done the nation an enormous amount of good. Its social-cultural gatekeepers, for all their flaws, kept both moral and professional standards high in our institutions and guilds (until recent times). That church, because of its diversity within, guaranteed religious freedom and genuine toleration, as against mere forbearance. It thus created the predicates for our liberal society as a whole—liberal meant, of course, in the best sense, not the partisan sense, of the word—which we have ever more assiduously tried to live up to as the years have passed. And, as Mark Lilla teaches in his book The Stillborn God, this church, here and in Britain especially, its really at base what has enabled us to vanquish the monadic temptations of political theology, allowing us to build a procedural, rule-of-law polity in a socially diverse nation. If America is exceptional, its Protestant origins go far in explaining why.
As I say, nothing is ever lost in social history and the history of ideas. The old is supplanted by the new, transcended occasionally, but the links back are still there even if—especially if—we go out of our way to make sharp divisions between eras and school of thought for self-interested political or ideological reasons. This matters because the American deification of democracy as necessarily superior universal “best practice” is related to an even deeper strata of thought. That strata involves an aspect of a much older idea of progress, one that in Western thought has two distinct founts. One is the Socratic idea of reason, which for Socrates was a form of mystical religion that supposedly enabled human beings to transcend the natural world, but which in later times became identified with science as the prime mover of human betterment. The second fount is the Christian doctrine of salvation, based on the premise that the human animal is the only one in creation that is fundamentally flawed, basically ill, and needs to be fixed or healed or, in the religious vocabulary or the church, saved.
Combined and shorn of their religious origins, these are the components of the Western secular idea of progress. That idea is sometimes called the Whig view of the world when the premise of linked moral and material progress is made explicit. When this formulation of the idea of progress is explicitly delinked from any traditional deistic faith it is known as humanism, the myth of (now earthly) salvation through reason. In the form of secular humanism, the idea of progress depends on science (reason) as the deliverer of (earthly) salvation, and in recent decades (actually well over a century now, since Herbert Spencer at least) a particular science has taken pride of place in the humanist pantheon: evolution. Here is how John Gray describes the matter in his new book The Silence of Animals:
The myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world, which in Socrates and Plato was part of a mystical philosophy, has been renewed in a garbled version of the language of evolution. . . . Believing that human history was itself a kind of evolutionary process, Spencer asserted that the end-point of the process was laissez-faire capitalism. His disciples Sidney and Beatrice Webb . . . believed it culminated in communism. . . . The destinations that successive generations of theorists have assigned to evolution have no basis in science. Invariably, they are the prevailing idea of progress recycled in Darwinian terms. . . . Theories of human rationality increasing through social evolution are as groundless today as they were when Spencer used them to promote laissez-faire capitalism and the Webbs communism. Reviving long-exploded errors, twenty-first century believers in progress unwittingly demonstrate the unreality of progress in the history of ideas. . . . Modern myths are myths of salvation stated in secular terms. What both kinds of myths have in common is that they answer to a need for meaning that cannot be denied. In order to survive, humans have invented science. Pursued consistently, scientific inquiry acts to undermine myth. But life without myth is impossible, so science has become a channel for myths—chief among them, a myth of salvation through science.
John C. Greene put the same basic point in a book called Debating Darwin back in 1999:
Every great scientific synthesis stimulates efforts to view the whole of reality in its terms, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection was no exception. But the views of reality that originate in this way are not themselves scientific, nor are they subject to scientific verification.
You see where this is going: Western and especially American social science arguments that global democracy is conducive to world peace amount to lesser-included myths linked to the grander (secularized Greco-Christian, rationalist/salvationist) belief in progress. We Americans believe in global democracy promotion, including in Egypt, ultimately for religious reasons tied to our belief in progress, which is itself a key premise of the aforementioned Protestant Deformation. So when both Islamist and even merely Islamic critics characterized the Bush “forward strategy for freedom” as a Christianity-based attack on Dar al-Islam, and most Americans were embarrassed for them on account of the supposed primitive level of their understanding, the fact of the matter is that they were correct.
It will not escape the better educated that this prior, deeper notion, this secular humanism, is of course what the Enlightenment, at least in Europe, was all about. In its American incarnation the Enlightenment managed to leave a large place open to a tolerant Protestant religious ethos, that made vastly easier by the fact that, unlike in Europe, no church since early New England times had ever tried to smother or contain our national political life. It is this uniquely American form of the Enlightenment that created our natural law-based foundation for the Declaration, the Constitution, and everything else that defines us as a political community. And again, I call all this a myth not necessarily to disparage it, but simply because it is a matter of faith. There is not much, if any, actual scientific evidence for any of it, nor certainly for the philosophical premise of primordial individualism that ultimately sustains it. As Gray aptly says (though I disagree with him profoundly on his central argument, and other points besides), since life without myth is impossible, we have made what is supposedly science into a channel for a myth of this-worldly salvation.
Of course for Americans, being the sons and daughters of a Protestant religious culture whether they themselves are Protestant believers or not (the beauty of our Protestant-origined civil religion is that it lets everyone into the room to play, even Catholics and, amazingly, Jews), it is not enough that Americans believe in progress in this particular rational-salvationist manner. Protestantism is evangelical by nature, so everyone must believe it. Nowhere was this impulse expressed more clearly than in George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, which Thomas Wolfe aptly described as the extension of the Monroe Doctrine to the entire planet.
When I hear democracy-export advocates talk about their plans and aspirations, whether in government or in the NGO think-tank world without, it reminds me of the tone, though of course not with the identical vocabulary, of what meetings in Methodist church basements must have sounded like as missionaries in the mid- to late-19th century were about to head off to fulfill their sacred duties to save the heathens in China. We sometimes worry about mission creep, and rightly so. But what we should be worrying about more broadly, as Lawrence Husick once shrewdly quipped to me, is missionary creep—a version of which infests the infernally silly “debate” we are now having about democracy in Egypt.
I’m sorry if I have upset anyone, but sometimes if you want to make an analytical omelet, you have to break some other folks’ mythic eggs. And please understand: If we humans need mythic schema to navigate aspects of life for which science is unavailing, we might as well choose noble ones. I think we Americans have. As long as we keep ourselves from getting too caught up in visions of our own benignity, our myths of progress and democracy are better, for us, at least, than any others I would care to entertain.
The question of the moment, however, is are they also necessarily better for others? Including Egyptians? And even if they are, can they be exported or otherwise conjured into existence? My answers are “no, not necessarily” and “only with the greatest difficulty and with the wholehearted cooperation of the importer.”
I have tried to take some pains here to show that ideas about social and political life do not fall from the sky as revelation, but are rather bound up in a long dialectical process of social experience and thought. Westerners, and Americans more specifically, think about these matters the way we do because our history and culture have disposed us to do so. Yet because our attitude toward these subjects is essentially religious, however well masked it may be even to us, we impute universal validity to them as a matter not of analysis but of faith. How many Presidents and Secretaries of State have you heard claim that freedom and liberty and every other noble-sounding abstract noun their speechwriters can think of are really the desire and the right of all people everywhere? They all do this—President Obama among them—partly because speechwriters turn by default to lowest-common-denominator Enlightenment pabulum whenever the occasion calls for transcendent obfuscation. I know; I have experienced the impulse. With everyone around urging you on, nodding like a bunch of Ivy-League-educated bobble heads, it takes a mighty effort to resist this—besides which, most if not all Presidents and Secretaries of State actually believe this stuff.
Not only do we confuse what it parochial with what is universal, we stuff into our para-religious concept of democracy every nice thing we can think of and assume it’s all one big happy unity. So with democratic process as a way or electing leaders we stuff accountability, rule of law, the liberties of the bill of rights and toleration for minority views. We conflate all this together even though every one of these items has a separate history, and despite the fact that democratic process can exist without a general rule of law, as in China, that accountability can exist without democracy, as in Saudi Arabia, and so on and on and on.
Conflation aside, it’s just not true that our social and political premises are universally valid. They are particularist to us; how, within the realm of social science however imagined, could it possibly be otherwise? It is presumptuous in the extreme, as well as insulting and patronizing, for us to tell other people, most certainly Egyptians included, how they should organize their societies and run their countries. It marks us as failing to appreciate the dignity of difference, but that is unfortunately true of all evangelical faith communities with universal pretensions—including of course Islam. Let’s now try to understand better why this is.
When a premise is believed as a matter of faith, a concomitant inclination is to think that it is easy for other people to believe the same universally true things once their eyes have been opened to that truth. So all you have to do is tell them about how wonderful democracy is, and they will accept the good news (once again, words used very advisedly). Our forebears were much more realistic about such matters. As I have pointed out before, Locke, Montesquieu and even Rousseau never believed that all social and economic virtue depended on the adoption of a particular form of government, a notion that Samuel Taylor Coleridge ruefully called the “talismanic influence” of government over “our virtues and our happiness.” They saw things the other way around: A particular form of government was the consequence of a people’s long and refined moral, social and historical experience. Americans had suffrage because American society was democratically minded, not the other way around. “Liberty, not being a fruit of all climates”, wrote Rousseau in one of his more lucid moments, “is not within the reach of all peoples.” Democracy, as Jefferson, Madison, Adams and the great lights of the American Founding generation saw it, depended on certain dispositions long in the making, most of which, they intuitively understood, came out of Protestant religious culture. Three such dispositions are critical requisites for a democratic political culture.
The first is that the citizenry believe that the proximate source of political authority is intrinsic rather than extrinsic to society—“of the people, by the people, and for the people” as opposed to some variety of divine law. The second is that they accept the idea that at least a certain subset of citizens (propertied males in the late-18th century scheme of things) are equal before the law, and that law both trumps all persons and limits the prerogatives of leaders. The third is that they have concepts of majority rule and representation.
Without the first disposition the ideal of pluralism, of a “loyal opposition”, of the utility of honest doubt and hence the value of open debate, cannot exist. Without the second, a polity can be neither free nor just, neither meritocratic nor accountable. Without the third, the idea of elections literally makes no sense. When elections are held under conditions in which these three dispositions are weak or absent in the hearts and minds of voters, as was the case in Egypt in June 2012, one essentially has a democratic form without democrats to fill it in. One will therefore predictably get outcomes in line with what Samuel Huntington once called “the democracy paradox.” That is exactly what happened in Egypt.
In most of the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular—including Egypt most assuredly—these dispositions are weak on account of historical factors peculiar to the region. In brief (for more detail see my “The Impossible Imperative?: Conjuring Arab Democracy”, The National Interest, Number 69, Fall 2002), first, a belief in extrinsic sources of authority has been ratified and shaped by Islamic principles. There is only one God and only one truth, so there can be only one agent of God on earth in any given time and place, and that person must be obeyed as a regent of the divine unless and until his impiety shows that he is not worthy of obedience. As William Brown, a retired diplomat and Arabist summed it up in his underappreciated 1980 book, The Last Crusade:
According to the liberal democratic norms of the West, political institutions are dedicated to enacting the wishes of a tolerant majority. In the Middle East the purpose of political institutions is to facilitate the constant unfolding or revelation of a popular consensus. . . . The Arab perceives a single community of faith and language that contrasts sharply with our emphasis on competing but mutually adjusting political factions. In the West, politics has a flavor of controlled conflict that the Arab regards as destructive to community.
He adds that in the pluralist West elections decide political competitions, whereas for the monadic Arab world an election is—or was when Brown was writing in the late 1970s—usually a collective, communal affirmation of a decision already made.
Second, the legitimacy of social hierarchy makes the idea of impersonal, formal equality before the law difficult for most Arabs, and most Egyptians, to accept. And indeed, as Lawrence Rosen has shown in Law as Culture: An Invitation (2008), Arab judges do not operate in that way. They match the unique, concrete circumstances of the action and personalities involved in a legal dispute to the law, not the other way around. A typical Egyptian qadi would think of an impersonal legal process in which all plaintiffs are in theory interchangeable with all others before the law as a flatly absurd approach to achieve true justice.
Third, the tribal/clan tradition of consensus decision-making in places like Egypt makes the concept of winner-take-all majority electoral rule almost incomprehensible. It makes the idea of inclusive toleration of minority views equally incomprehensible, as Mohammed Morsi so vividly illustrated for us over the past year. Indeed, the very idea of representation, necessary to move from village-scale to national democratic polities, is weak in Arab culture. Arab, and Egyptian, social relations are concrete and highly personal; this is where the power of a personal oath of loyalty (bay’a) and of hierarchically structured mediation (wasta) find firm anchor. The highly abstract notion that one can for all practical purposes homogenize human beings so that one person can stand in for ten or a hundred or a thousand unique others in a legislative setting is not a concept that comes naturally to every culture.
For the vast majority of native-born Americans who have never lived abroad, and who have otherwise never achieved near-fluency in a non-Western language, the very idea that any group of people could think in ways so different from our own is enough to knock some folks right off their chairs, or else send them to the liquor cabinet for a stiff one. (Again I do not exclude roughly 99.44% of the American political class from this category.) Fortunately for their health, I suppose, this almost never happens because “the very idea” is never transmitted to them, as it has now been to you. (You haven’t hurt yourself, I hope.)
Obviously, cultures are not frozen and attitudes are not stagnant. Over the past generation plenty of Egyptians and other Arabs have come to understand how Westerners think about these things, and, given the lowly state of their own political circumstances, have come to find them attractive. There are Arab democrats, real ones—not just ones who mouth slogans without understanding the implications. There are Egyptian democrats too, also real ones, and there are lots more of both in 2013 than there were in, say, 1983, which is not all that long ago. They are nowhere near a majority, or even a social plurality, in any Arab country yet. But as the generations roll, one day that might change, and if then Egyptians want to reorder their political life, that’s their business. If they ask our help, we should help if we can.
In the meantime, however, to punish the country—and let’s be real, please, that’s what it is—by withholding aid because Egyptians have a different history from ours, and consequently differently shaped social attitudes and political institutions, just seems to me ever so slightly nuts, not to speak of unfair. It would make the United States seem anti-Egyptian in the eyes of the majority, most of whom believe “people power”, and not a coup, brought down the MB government. An aid suspension will confirm to many that the United States is pro-Islamist, however strange that has to strike most Americans. An aid suspension would also be, as I have already said, flatly counterproductive in light of our interests and present purposes with regard to Egypt.
Now, I can see Carl Levin’s smiling face rise up over my piano over there next to the window, and I can hear him say, with palms turned upward pleading, “But Adam, it’s the law. You can’t just ignore the law, or where would we all be?”
And I would answer: “But Senator, it’s a stupid law and it should be repealed.” He would be incredulous, but I would persist: “Sir, consider that in a place like West Africa, where coups can flow from political rivalries or popular uprisings or combinations of the two, this law leads to complete policy incoherence. We can now fund security assistance programs in Niger, where a 2010 coup eventually led to a democratically elected government, but we can’t fund programs in Mali, where Captain Amadou Sanogo’s 2012 coup remains not-yet-transcended political fact. But of course the security situations in these two countries are closely linked; so the fact that we couldn’t in Niger but now we can, but we could in Mali and now we can’t creates a policy flow that undermines the attainment of our objectives.”
And the Senator from Michigan would reply, “Yes, maybe, but the American people do not understand or care about such details. They do care deeply, however, about our government protecting and advancing democracy the world over.”
And to that all I could say would be “Amen.”