There was little cheering in Western capitals following Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt last week. At the same time, there was an audible sigh of relief as Western leaders expressed their hope that Egypt would return to democracy soon under a new constitution and new elections.
But diplomatic doublespeak isn’t going to be enough. Led by the United States, Western democracies have to get serious and start working together as the tidal wave unleashed by the “great awakening” of the Arab Spring spreads throughout the Middle East.
What’s happening in Egypt speaks to a struggle that will envelop the Middle East for years to come. It is a struggle between rising religious (Islamic) zealotry — or theocracy, as in Iran — and more inclusive and tolerant forms of secular democracy more attuned to, but not identical with, Western values.
Morsi failed abysmally because he over-reached politically and under-achieved economically. The people revolted, prompting the military to intervene in the name of stability. There really wasn’t any other avenue for dissent in Egypt. We’ve seen this movie before.
The U.S. has been inept and feckless throughout Egypt’s continuing crisis. It blew cold and then hot on Morsi. Egyptians have long since soured on President Obama. The administration convinced itself that it could do business with Morsi when he signaled that he would not try to renegotiate Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Morsi’s plea to Arab leaders not to intervene in Syria was seen by Washington as a plus, along with his neoliberal economic agenda.
But there was little overt criticism of Morsi by the Obama White House after he rewrote Egypt’s constitution to elevate Sharia law and empower himself and the Muslim Brotherhood. When Coptic Christians were attacked by Islamist extremists or when Morsi subverted civil rights, Washington’s response was mealy and meek.
Washington’s studied indifference to the current crisis is truly astonishing. Obama headed to the golf course over the weekend while Secretary of State John Kerry holidayed on a yacht off Nantucket. In any event, Kerry seems preoccupied with the Israel-Palestine quagmire while the president, true to form, remains aloof and above the fray.
The U.S. has both leverage and influence, given the billions it funnels to Egypt’s military. Carefully nuanced press statements may straddle diplomatic imperatives — but surely this is a time for quiet, firm diplomacy with stability as the overriding objective.
Canada has little scope for direct influence. We should, however, quietly urge the U.S. to focus on the larger struggle, not the perennial problem of Israel-Palestine. The U.S. continues to have major interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where messages of secular democracy have little resonance. But surely it and its Western allies can all endorse more opportunities for free expression and free assembly.
Some of this may be wishful thinking. Morsi’s supporters are still taking to the streets, spoiling for a fight. Violence is mounting. The situation on the ground in the Arab world’s most populous nation is now increasingly polarized and dangerous.
Unlike the case of the Algerian coup of 1992, when the military took power to thwart the political ambitions of Islamists who won national elections, the U.S. and its Western allies can’t simply turn a blind eye this time.
Washington is going to have to work harder if wants to be on the “right” side of history in Egypt. That means encouraging consistent steps toward pluralistic, secular democracy while recognizing that values, unlike flowers, are not easily transplanted.
Some Egyptians are now calling for a process of national reconciliation and dialogue among the country’s different religious and secular elements. They are right to do so. But the window of opportunity to start such a dialogue will close rapidly if violence escalates and the situation deteriorates further.
That is why it would be a grave mistake for Egyptian authorities to keep all of the Brotherhood’s political leaders locked up — and Canada should say so. Keeping the opposition behind bars will only foster a greater sense of injustice while strengthening the hands of extremists.
Western leaders should also talk less about the need for new elections and instead encourage Egyptians to go where some of them seem to want to go — toward a genuinely inclusive process of national dialogue and reconciliation, one which Morsi himself shunned. It is a dialogue that can — and should — begin now, as Egypt’s new interim leader embarks on the painstaking task of drafting a new national constitution.
This may well be time for a “D10″ initiative, bringing together the ten leading democratic nations of the world. The U.S. and its closest democratic allies — including Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Australia — could use the moment to develop a coordinated and coherent strategy of carrots and sticks to counter religious zealotry and encourage an embrace of secular pluralism and free expression — not only in Egypt but in the region.
The concept of a D10 was developed recently by Ash Jain and David Gordon in the Wall Street Journal as a means for like-minded democracies to assert their values and work more effectively around the blockages in existing institutions such as the U.N. Security Council and the G8, where the conflicting positions of Russia and China prevent consensus on global problems.
In a social media universe, dissent in authoritarian societies cannot be suppressed as easily as in decades past. Progress will never be linear. Situations will not be black or white — but even grey can have texture.
This is not a time for preaching or high-sounding rhetoric. The situation calls for firm but quiet diplomacy, led by the one power with real influence — the United States — and supported by its like-minded allies.