The Lesson of Egypt: Democracy ≠ Freedom

By | December 5, 2011 | 0 Comments

In January 2011, I wrote this:

One need not be a news junkie to know that Egypt, a nation of over 80 million people, is teetering on the brink. The hope for Middle East peace, as well as the Suez Canal, a key choke point for world commerce, both hang in the balance. If Egypt falls one way, there will be a chance for modernization and democratic reforms. If it falls the other way, the extremist Muslim Brotherhood will take over.

Well, now we know which way Egypt will fall − and fall it did. In the recent election, the first apparently free election in Egypt’s 5000-year history, the extremist Muslim Brotherhood received at least 40% of the vote, and perhaps as much as 45%. The even more extreme Salafist party received about 20%, so the two extreme Islamist parties garnered at least 60% of the vote. And being extreme and well organized, these groups’ influence will probably exceed even this figure.
What will this mean?
The Suez Canal is the northern entrance to the Red Sea. The southern entrance is the Gulf of Aden. On the west of the latter choke point is Somalia, where pirates roam free to prey on shipping. On the east is Yemen, now in the throes of similar public unrest. Lebanon is effectively under the control of Hezbollah − that is, of Iran. Iran also controls the Strait of Hormuz, the choke point through which the oil of Iraq, Iran, and much of Saudi Arabia must pass.
Radicalization of Muslims and persecution of Christians is also happening in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon, and in our “allies” of Iraq and Afghanistan. If all that doesn’t make you anxious, you are either remarkably calm or on medication.
Let us distinguish between democracy and freedom. Recall that Hitler came to power by largely democratic means. The Nazi Party got the largest share of votes, though not a majority. Hitler was named chancellor, the equivalent of prime minister, in an attempt to quell political and economic unrest. He lost no time in seizing all power, but in the guise of legal procedures.
The Germans had democracy for a time, but they ended up with no freedom at all. They and the world paid a very high price for this exercise in democracy.
Democracy is a tool. What results depends on the people who use it. You can use a hammer to repair your neighbor’s roof, or to bash his brains out. Our founders were conscientious men who loved freedom. They used democratic means wisely, to establish the freest nation in the world. We are still relatively free because of their foresight. Whether we are on the road to more freedom or less is a question we must ask ourselves between now and next November.
But what do Egyptians want? One-half of Egyptians are under age 30. What do these young people want? Yes, many use cell phones, surf the Internet, and use Twitter and Facebook. This means that they can organize much more easily than revolutionaries of the past. But to what purpose?
Unlike the Bolsheviks in the Russia of 1917, they need not print leaflets on underground presses, then distribute them by hand, risking arrest. But like the Bolsheviks, they can fuel an anti-freedom revolution. I believe that many Egyptians want to be left alone to make a living and raise a family. They want a shred of political and economic freedom.
But now we know that many others want to establish an Iranian-style Islamic state, under their version of Sharia law.
● They want to deprive women of the few rights they have in the sexist Egypt of today. For example, 97% of Egyptian women are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation.
● They want to express unremitting hostility to America and Western values.
● They want to oppress and persecute − even more than is now the case − the 10% of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians, and who belong to one of the oldest Christian churches on earth.
● They want to renounce the peace treaty with Israel. Israel gave back the Sinai, with its strategic location and its oil wells, and in return got the treaty. So much for “land for peace” − the land is gone forever, but the peace can vanish tomorrow. What a deal!
Some Egyptian women boycotted the election, sensing what would result. So assume 40% of the voters were women. At least 60% of the votes went to Islamist parties. This means that many women voted for candidates who will restrict women’s rights even more than they already are. And let’s be honest − the great majority of Egyptian women could not undergo genital mutilation without the cooperation of mothers, aunts, and older sisters. Once again we see that for many people, freedom is not highly valued.
Mubarak, like many dictators, apparently believed he would live forever. Finally, when he was in his eighties, he groomed his son to take over. But the son had no experience. Mubarak had no Plan B.
But we also had no Plan B. What if he died suddenly? What if he became disabled? What if he were displaced in a coup? What if he were overthrown in a revolution? Somewhere in the bowels of the State Department or the CIA, there must be a dusty file titled, “What to do if Mubarak falls,” but President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were unaware of it. They uttered platitudes and appeared confused and weak.
Confused and weak are poor qualities for the leaders of a great nation. Americans would like to be loved. This may not be possible. Then we would be satisfied to be respected. We might even settle for being feared. But do you recall the image of President Obama bowing deeply to the king of Saudi Arabia? I recall it vividly.

More importantly, millions in the Muslim world, where symbolism is important, also recall this image. Bowing deeply to a man many do not respect, and whom they see as a remnant of the corrupt, tyrannical past, was not the way to represent the power and devotion to freedom that America should represent.
Even if we occupied a position of strength, there might not have been much we could have done at that late date. Many Egyptians see us the same way many Iranians saw us in 1979, when the shah fell and was replaced by the ayatollahs. We are seen as supporters of the status quo, which the people no longer tolerated. After 30 years of supporting Mubarak, we can’t blame Egyptians for seeing us that way.
So what can we do?
We should try to persuade Egyptians to form a government that encourages freedom − or at least tolerates it. But we must do so quietly. Recall that the demonstrators carried placards showing Mubarak in an Uncle Sam hat. Being pro-American would be a sure way for an Egyptian politician to lose his credibility − or worse.
There are three possible goals of foreign policy: love, respect, and fear.
We should announce that we will cut off all aid unless Egypt allows at least some freedom. Better late than never − but in this case, not much better. And we can cut off aid if the persecution and murder of Christians and the burning of churches continue. Islamists already call us “crusaders.” Standing up for Christians could hardly make us less loved, but it could make us more respected.
Who can respect people who abandon their friends and co-religionists to persecution and murder? Who can respect people who caution their Marines not to face Mecca when they relieve themselves? And with our military already overstretched, and our president bowing when he should stand tall, fear is no longer an option. Loved? Respected? Feared? Are you joking? How about despised and ridiculed? People who let others tell them which way to face when they relieve themselves are ridiculous.
In the Muslim world, they vote away their freedoms because of the promise of religious extremism. In the Western world, we vote away our freedoms because of the promise of “free” government benefits. In both cases, the result is economic stagnation and loss of freedom.
The lesson of Egypt is that democracy and freedom are two different things. Whether they go together depends on the values of the people who practice democracy. This is true for Egyptians, and it is just as true for us.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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