The debate on Egypt has been between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize substance.
Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.
Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.
Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.
World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,” declared one speaker at a pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Tuesday.
As Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest, put it in an essay recently, for this sort of person “there is no need for causality, since that would imply a diminution of God’s power.” This sort of person “does not accept the existence of an objective fact separate from how he feels about it.”
Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.
Nathan Brown made that point about the Muslim Brotherhood recently in The New Republic: “The tight-knit organization built for resilience under authoritarianism made for an inward-looking, even paranoid movement when it tried to refashion itself as a governing party.”
Once elected, the Brotherhood subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process, concentrated power and made democratic deliberations impossible.
It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam. We’ve seen that in Algeria, Iran, Palestine and Egypt: real-world, practical ineptitude that leads to the implosion of the governing apparatus.
The substance people are right. Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit. It’s necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.
Last week’s military coup may merely bring Egypt back to where it was: a bloated and dysfunctional superstate controlled by a self-serving military elite. But at least radical Islam, the main threat to global peace, has been partially discredited and removed from office.
The Obama administration has not handled this situation particularly well. It has shown undue deference to a self-negating democratic process. The American ambassador to Cairo, Anne Patterson, has done what ambassadors tend to do: She tried to build relationships with whoever is in power. This created the appearance that she is subservient to the Brotherhood. It alienated the Egyptian masses. It meant that the United States looked unprepared for and hostile to the popular movement that has now arisen.
In reality, the U.S. has no ability to influence political events in Egypt in any important way. The only real leverage point is at the level of ideas. Right now, as Walter Russell Mead of Bard College put it, there are large populations across the Middle East who feel intense rage and comprehensive dissatisfaction with the status quo but who have no practical idea how to make things better. The modern thinkers who might be able to tell them have been put in jail or forced into exile. The most important thing outsiders can do is promote those people and defend those people, decade after decade.
It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.