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17.04.2014
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Elliott Abrams

Promoting democracy: The case of Egypt

Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points" here.

The lesson that Egypt's military government seems to have learned from studying the country's recent past is that repression of all criticism is a good thing. Not, mind you, that the Muslim Brotherhood is dangerous and must be repressed, but rather that all criticism of the army is impermissible.

The events of this week are just more of the same: "Egyptian blogger arrested in widening crackdown," Reuters reports. The story continues:

"Egyptian authorities have extended a crackdown on Islamists, in which they have killed hundreds and arrested thousands since President Mohamed Mursi was ousted in July, to cover political activists who have become more vocal against the military."

My colleague Steven Cook discussed these developments yesterday in an insightful blog post, and presented this analysis:

"For the first time since Mohammed Morsi's overthrow five months ago, street protests erupted in Egypt last week that were not specifically the work of the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at restoring the deposed leader to the presidency. ... The current controversy surrounds an anti-protest measure that interim president, Adly Mansour, signed into law on November 24. Among a range of restrictions, the new statute requires Egyptians to secure seven different types of permits in order to demonstrate, bans gatherings of more than ten people -- in public and private -- and carries hefty fines, which taken together are tougher than efforts to prevent mass demonstrations during the Mubarak period. With persistent Muslim Brotherhood street protests, a number of important anniversaries looming -- January 25 and February 11 -- and apparent widespread support for stability, it is clear why the government took the steps it did to curb demonstrations. Still, it is an astonishing irony (among the long list that Egyptians have produced over the last three years), an indication of creeping authoritarianism, and a superlative example of political tone deafness that a government, which owes its very existence to massive street protests, is trying to snuff out the rights of Egyptians to express themselves en masse in public."

It won't work, in the long run or even the medium run. Americans who believe the "realpolitik" approach to Egypt calls for ignoring this army policy are making a mistake even from the narrow optic of "realpolitik." It is unrealistic to believe that a policy of repression will work, especially in the context of a stagnant economy. And when the Egyptian people tire of living in a military dictatorship that cannot produce the economic gains they seek, how strong will liberal, democratic forces that believe in liberty under law be? That depends in part on the support we give them today -- and even if it depends only in very small part on that support, what reason do we have for ignoring them? Why should we not favor the forces who want the kind of Egypt we would like to see – secular, democratic, prosperous, with both the army and the Brotherhood out of power? It's a strange form of "realism" that ignores those who share our principles and cozies up to an army that appears to see military dictatorship as Egypt's proper future.

From "Pressure Points" by Elliot Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.

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