I could not help but think about that saying when I read about the dissolution of the Egyptian parliament last week. The wailing and gnashing of gums was prevalent: a setback for democracy, a return to oppression.
Except the choice in Egypt seems to be oppression and ... oppression. Either oppression by the secular Egyptian military or oppression by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Barry Rubin is on it:
The Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court has just invalidated the parliamentary election there. The parliament, 75 percent of whose members were Islamists, is being dissolved. The military junta has taken over total authority. The presidential election is still scheduled for a few dozen hours from now.Agreed. Fortunately there have been no rumblings of a civil war yet, but better a civil war than the Muslim Brotherhood in power.
In short, everything is confused and everything is a mess. All calculations are thrown to the wind. What this appears to be is a new military coup. What is the underlying theme? The armed forces concluded that an Islamist takeover was so dangerous for Egypt and for its own interests that it is better to risk civil war, a bloodbath, and tremendous unpopularity than to remain passive and turn over power. I believe this decision was made very reluctantly and not out of some lust for power by the generals. They have decided that they had no choice.
Walter Russell Mead seems to be taking a bit of an ambivalent approach:
Yesterday Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court handed down rulings that dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, in what has been called a coup by military leaders apparently dissatisfied with “transitional authority” status. Egypt is now the newest example of an old trend in Middle Eastern politics in which Islamist gains inspire pushback from secular authoritarian elements in the government.[...][A]t this point, liberals, the business establishment, and the Copts now understand how politically weak they really are. Given a choice between Islamist rule and the old Egypt minus Mubarak, they will likely opt for the army and the old system.In the wake of the military’s power grab, we have not heard the standard cries of the liberals and Twitterati: “Where is the revolution?” Perhaps they finally know the answer: it was never a revolution—or at least not theirs. The Mubarak family is gone, but the military republic that has ruled Egypt for sixty years endures.And this is a bad thing how? If the choice is between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood, then there is no choice. The Egyptian military might be oppressive but the Muslim Brotherhood is evil.
Mead discusses it further in a later post:
There seem to be three decisive factors at work. First, despite the usual factional rivalries and disputes, the military remained united and stuck to a coherent vision of what it wanted. The traditional role of the army in many Islamic states is more active than in the Christian world. Coming from traditions like the Mamelukes and the Janissaries, the idea of the military as the true servants of the state and the custodians of the general interests (against the selfish machinations of civilian families and officials), is deeply implanted not only among military officers, but among the people as a whole. A powerful military that ultimately arbitrates disputes between politicians doesn’t feel wrong to many Egyptians in the way that it does to people in countries with long traditions of strong civilian government. A military leadership in Egypt that is smart and knows what it wants remains likely to get its way.
Second, the revolutionaries were fatally split between liberals (many of whom come out of the Coptic Christian minority) and Islamists. In the end, the liberals in Egypt prefer the military to the mullahs, and the Muslim Brotherhood prefers the military to the liberals. Both the liberals and the Islamists made efforts to bridge this divide, but the gulf was too wide. This gap has been a feature of Egyptian politics for decades, and for decades it has helped to ensure the dominance of what I think of as Egypt’s military republic.
Third, the peasants and the urban poor in Egypt need stability to survive. Political upheaval keeps the tourists and foreign investors away, and scares Egyptian money out of the country. That means real privation, even hunger for millions of Egyptians who live on the edge. These people simply cannot stand a prolonged period of turmoil and as the political impasse and interregnum dragged on, their demand for stability and order has become a greater and greater factor in Egyptian politics. This is why the army’s preferred presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik, a self-confessed Mubarak admirer, seems to be at least within what Texas politicians call “stealing distance” of an outright win. The peasants and the poor don’t just want the turmoil to stop. They need for the turmoil to stop, need in the sense of needing to be able to feed their children.
All of that may be true, but the basic problem is this: after what were determined by outside observers not tainted by Jimmy Carter to be free elections, Islamists had 75 percent of the parliamentary seats. 75 percent. For people who adhere to a philosophy that does not believe in democracy.
One man (literally, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood), one vote, one time.
Many see this as a foreign policy dilemma without a clear solution. Rubin again:
This event poses a huge problem for the Obama administration — and I’ll bet it caught them by surprise. Does the U.S. government condemn the military and put sanctions on it, demanding that the Muslim Brotherhood be put into power? There is no easy solution. But we are likely to have the strange situation of an American president fighting to put into power an anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic political force that is opposed to all U.S. interests, because — after all — they did win the election. Once again, Arab leaders have rebelled against Obama’s–and I don’t say this lightly–pro-Islamist policy.That's the trap, isn't it? Either be anti-democracy or pro-Islamist. But it's not really that hard. Paul Mirengoff, in countering a column by Max Boot arguing that we should let the Muslim Brotherhood have power, argues that the strategic interests of the United States take precedence:
There should be a strong presumption in favor of upholding our strategic interest rather than our interest in promoting democracy in this or that foreign country, where the two interests conflict. In other words, our interest in our own security, and that of our close allies, should trump our desire to promote democracy in countries with which we have no strong attachment. And this is especially true where, as with Egypt, (a) promoting democracy will undermine whatever attachment we have to the country in question because the democratically elected party is our bitter enemy and (b) the elected party’s platform obviously bodes ill for the country in question.Duh.
Boot says that the Egyptian generals “are claiming to save the people from the messy untidiness of democracy.” Messy untidiness was the Florida recount controversy in the 2000 presidential election. We’re talking about something quite different here – the takeover of Egypt by sinister forces and the possible creation of “an Iranian-style theocracy,” as Boot more appropriately characterizes the problem elsewhere in his piece.
Boot argues that “the best bet in the long run for weakening Brotherhood authority would be to allow it to rule.” That case can be made, but its strength depends on the meaning of “long run.” For there is no guarantee that the Muslim Brotherhood will be punished by voters anytime soon. First, we shouldn’t assume that voters will have that opportunity. If the Brotherhood seizes the levers of power, how do we know it will countenance fair elections in the future if the democratic tide turns against it? We certainly can’t depend on the democratic instincts of the Brotherhood itself; it didn’t want elections in the first place.
[W]e shouldn’t assume that even if democracy persists, it will produce non-Islamist governments anytime soon. Ideology can trump administrative failure for decades. That’s what occurred in India, for example, where the left-wing faction of the Congress Party held power seemingly forever, notwithstanding the ineffectiveness of its socialist policies. Indeed, this story was repeated, more or less, in many third world countries in the early decades of the post-colonial era.This is not an issue of merely voting for a politician with whom we disagree, like, say, Hollande in France. This is a case of voting into power people who are as manifestly evil and every bit as intent on world domination as the Nazis of World War II. And the rest of the world is supposed to sit here and allow that because, hey!, it's "democracy."
Um, no. The general rule should be that anyone who actually votes the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists into power is clearly too stupid to be trusted with democracy and is therefore we will not support democracy for those people.
Blunt? Yes. Harsh. Perhaps. But it's the truth. And probably our best choice right now.