Given the birth pangs of democracy in the West–ranging from Cromwell’s dictatorship in Britain and the terror of the French Revolution to the bloodletting of the U.S. Civil War and two world wars–it is no surprise that the path of political progress in the Middle East is neither smooth nor easy. It is, nevertheless, dismaying to see Iraq growing increasingly unstable, Syria still in the throes of civil war with the Assad regime gradually gaining ground, and, in the largest Arab country of all, increasing chaos in Egypt.
Twelve more people died in various clashes across Egypt on Tuesday. Especially ominous was the bombing of a police headquarters in the city of Mansoura: Although only one person died and 19 others were injured, this could well be a sign that Islamist opponents of the new military-dominated regime are not going to go away quietly and will instead resort to terrorism to try to win back power.
It is an ominous sign when government spokesmen are forced to deny that Egypt will be “another Syria,” but unfortunately the military’s hardline policies are making such a result more, not less, likely. Rather than trying to reach accommodation with the Islamists, who for all their faults did win a free election, the army is demonizing them as “traitors” who must be rooted out. Dispensing with the facade of civilian rule, the military commander, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, is calling for mass protests to give the military a mandate to crack down on “terrorism” and “violence,” which, if delivered, no doubt will be interpreted as a mandate to crack down on all opposition, period.
Egypt is seeing not the rule of law but the rule of the mob and the military. Alas, history teaches that when well-organized movements with mass support are pushed out of the political process, they are likely to resort to violence. See the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, or Egypt’s own bloodletting during that decade during a war against radical jihadists.
The U.S., beating a hasty and unwise retreat from the Middle East, is not a significant factor in these developments. President Obama is trying to be as balanced as possible, refusing to curtail the $1.3 billion in military aid while stopping the shipment of four F-16s that the military wants but does not really need. Such a gesture is not likely to achieve any results beyond highlighting our ineffectuality.
It would be a supreme and dismal irony if Obama, having campaigned on a pledge that the tide of war is “receding,” presides over growing conflict not only in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan (following the post-2014 U.S. drawdown) but in Egypt as well. Instead of appointing a special envoy to broker Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, which are going nowhere, the president and his secretary of state would be well advised to focus their resources on Egypt, which will be of far greater importance to the region’s future than the tiny Palestinian lands.