I must respectfully disagree with Max’s wait-and-watch take on an Egypt ruled by Mohammed Morsi. One certainly wants to see a democratic Egypt. And it is not exactly indefensible that Washington expressed hopes the Egyptian military would honor the recent election results. There remains, after all, no viable long-term game plan that relies on dictatorship to keep fanaticism under wraps. But urging countries to respect election results must be accompanied by a clear-eyed vigilance about what those results may portend. Just as a military dictatorship does not a free society make, a theocracy—even a publicly “softer” one that might (might) have incorporated notions of democracy into its ruling framework—is also not the stuff of freedom and tolerance. And in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is very, very far from it.
There is too much evidence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist brutality, militant anti-Americanism, and seething anti-Semitism—both historically and currently—to wipe the slate clean and wait for the ennobling transformation that comes with governing responsibility. The lesson that votes do not constitute democracies has been learned in places such as Algeria in the early 1990s and in the Palestinian territories in 2006. In both cases, the ballot box served as a pathway to Islamist nightmare. Surely, hoping for the best future does not mean dismissing the past.
Western policymakers have too often committed the cynical mistake of empowering anti-democratic leaders to clamp down on terrorists. Such thinking was one of the many reasons the Oslo Accords were doomed to failure. What Natan Sharansky has labeled “fear societies” will always seek outside enemies on whom to blame their lot. Therein lies the genesis of the current Egyptian debacle. But many of us who continue to believe in the virtues of a foreign policy characterized by a freedom agenda are flirting with a mirror-image mistake, a misplaced optimism about democracy in the wake of toppled dictators.
What’s happening now in Egypt is likely to turn very bad indeed. We do no favors for ourselves, Israelis, or heartbroken Egyptian liberals by giving people like Morsi the benefit of the doubt. Max’s assertion that Morsi may be obligated to honor the Camp David Accords could very well be correct. And what’s more, Egypt may have the good sense not to risk Israeli retaliation. But both of these suppositions point toward an opportunity for American action, not observation. If our $1.2 billion in annual aid to Egypt is not what’s keeping the Accords standing, we’d do well to consider making that aid contingent upon compliance with human rights benchmarks and the protection of what few, weak democratic institutions may now be in place in Egypt. Or–and this must be considered–those suppositions are wrong. And in that case, one cannot overstate the potential hazards of the new Egypt.