Editorial: The L Word


Last week the HBO drama “True Blood,” a fantastical variant of our world rife with supernatural beings, presented the children of a fairy-human union as progressing from infants to young adults in just a few days. The offspring grew up so fast they missed most of their developmental maturation along the way.

That might be a darn good metaphor for what’s going on in Egypt right now.

Those who want to find easy or clear answers in the ongoing Egyptian chaos are likely to be sadly disappointed. It would certainly be convenient to put forth simplistic explanations for the military takeover that has ignited a new round of civil unrest For instance, that Western democracy won’t work in the Middle East (outside Israel); or that military takeovers are by definition abhorrent.

Unfortunately, the current situation, which has seen the loss of over 50 lives in the past week, isn’t so easily diagnosable. Rather, it’s the product of a rapidly changing culture trying to find stability in an unfamiliar and flawed political model in the face of severe religious and economic unrest.

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When Egyptian society pushed for an overthrow of the harsh, violent and distinctly insular government of Hosni Mubarak, many in the West rejoiced. The presumption was that democracy, with its by-the-people bent, would lead Egyptians to the Promised Land.

But there was a slight problem. The democracy was one in classic definition – those who get the most votes win – but it wasn’t what the West typically thinks of as democracy. Our version is more akin to the classic definition of “liberal” democracy, the form that also includes safeguards for the minority through civil rights and liberties, and due process protections.

Just as an imperious autocrat like Mubarak can govern without regard to individual rights, so too can a majority-rules leadership when run by a group like the Muslim Brotherhood. Without constitutional assurances, thuggery and oppression of constituencies unsuccessful in elections can take hold and turn an ostensibly pluralistic process into bully governance.

And that’s fairly well what had transpired under President Mohammed Morsi and his allies in the Brotherhood, according to many on the outside looking in. Sarah Lynch and Oren Dorell wrote in USA Today last week, “Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center, said Morsi’s actions as president were driven by an Islamist mindset formed over decades of persecution and exclusion from power and an ongoing confrontation with leftover elements of a regime that had subjugated the Brotherhood in the past.”

Evidence of the Brotherhood’s historical chip on the shoulder was the constitution passed last year that failed to protect freedom of speech and the rights of women and minorities. When this was combined with a decrepit economy and a slew of cultural and environmental issues, the recipe was one that assured a political disaster.

So when the military finally stepped in last week, the international community was unsurprisingly ambivalent. David Brooks of the New York Times described the conflict as between those who emphasize process – favoring the flawed democracy’s right to work itself out – versus those who saw the evolving megacrisis and believed that a military step-in sooner than later would allow for the real-life problems Egypt’s experiencing to be corrected.

Part of what tipped Brooks’ scale in favor of the intervention, and we have to agree, was that the ruling Brotherhood doesn’t actually believe in the principles of liberal democracy. Empowering them to fix the problem, then, becomes a fool’s paradise. “(E)elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit,” said Brooks. “ It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.”

For Egypt, which depends on tourism and international cooperation for its economic well being, no ongoing government that excludes basic political and religious protections will allow the country to flourish. The current leadership appears to recognize this, having landed on a liberal economist, Hazen el-Beblawy, as temporary prime minister.

While the military intervention was hardly ideal, if it results in a reset button that enables a ruling coalition that protects the rights of all, it may have been a necessary step toward a better future for the country, for its neighbor Israel, and for the world.