Commentary Magazine


Why the Lid Blew Off in Egypt

Mona Charen has written a fine and fair column warning about what is happening in Egypt.

In the course of it she quotes President Bush’s words from 2003: “In the past, [we] have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. . . . Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.” Charen adds, “In that spirit, many former Bush administration officials cheered the uprisings in the Arab world. They argued, not without some plausibility, that the Freedom Agenda advanced by President Bush was bearing fruit and that the U.S. must, at all costs, associate itself with the people’s thirst for freedom and dignity and not with the repressive, discredited regimes.”

Charen goes on to make several points: (a) to be a conservative is to resist romanticism; (b) the rule of law, property rights, respect for the rights of minorities, and an independent judiciary do not spring fully formed from popular uprisings; (c) not all repressive regimes are created equal (Syria, Iran, and Libya are worse than Egypt under Mubarak and Tunisia under Ben Ali); and (d) post-Mubarak Egypt is a reminder of the dangers of chaos. On the latter point, she cites violence against Coptic Christians, intra-Muslim violence, improved relations with Iran, and a worsening economy in Egypt.

In response, there are several points that need to be made, beginning with this one: Most of the advocates of the Freedom Agenda are not romantic when it comes to revolutions, including the one in Egypt. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, was explicit in saying, “The possibility of a bad outcome is very real.” And some of us, in quoting Edmund Burke about the dangers of revolutions and warning that the Muslim Brotherhood could hijack the Egyptian revolution, wrote, “Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows that movements claiming to stand for liberty, equality, and fraternity can end in a Reign of Terror.” There was explicit recognition that a healthy political culture is crucial if liberty is to succeed. And distinctions were made regarding the malevolence of various regimes (autocratic versus totalitarian).

Recall that when it came to Egypt, the issue wasn’t whether the U.S. should work to overthrow the Mubarak regime. It was the degree to which, once the indigenous uprising began, America could best influence the direction of events. The concern was that the U.S. would side with Mubarak, who was at that point destined to fall, and therefore lose credibility with those who followed him. That’s precisely what happened.

If Mubarak had implemented genuine political reform earlier, the political convulsions might have been less sudden and less severe. He didn’t, and the revolution came. The question critics of the Freedom Agenda need to ask themselves is whether, in the case of nations like Egypt, they were in favor of more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies. Do they wish that Mubarak had begun to kill his own people in the manner that the Iranian and Syrian regimes have done? If not, what exactly was the alternative? To continue to support Mubarak and his sons, who themselves proved incapable of putting an end to the unrest?

Don’t get me wrong; many of us were moved by what was, at least in part, a driving force of the revolution in Egypt—the desire for liberty and an end to political corruption and oppression. That wasn’t the only factor propelling events, but it would be silly to deny that it wasn’t an animating issue. It’s worth adding that Iraq is evidence that Arab culture is not in every instance inimical to self-government. That journey has not been an easy one for Iraq, and its achievements remain imperfect and fragile. But certainly what is unfolding in Iraq is better than what preceded it.

Mona is quite right that prudence is an indispensible virtue. The question is whether it’s prudent to draw very many sweeping judgments about Egypt less than four months after Mubarak was overthrown. Things are still very much in a transition phase, and could well get worse before they get better. After all, it took the United States almost a century and a brutal, bloody civil war before it put an end to chattel slavery. Even in relatively good circumstances the road to self-government can be difficult. Nations will encounter significant setbacks along the way.

It’s impossible to know at this juncture what Egypt will eventually become. It may be that the pathologies there (and elsewhere) run so deep that self-government is simply hopeless. It may be that Islamist forces take control, as happened in Iran, and that Egypt a decade from now is more repressive, more anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, and more aggressive than it was under Mubarak. Conservatives should always open to the possibility that things could be worse.

But the lid blew in Egypt, as well as in other Arab nations, because people rose up on their own against repression, injustice, and widespread poverty. That is precisely what George W. Bush warned would come to pass. And whatever one felt at the time about the possibilities and dangers of the revolutions now engulfing much of the Arab world, American policy should be to use all the levers at our disposal, which are limited but not insignificant, to help guide the revolution in a direction that advances American interests and ideals. That is, I think, what prudence dictates.

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