Egypt’s Agony and America’s Cluelessness

Here’s a historical counter-factual thought experiment for you: suppose the German military, in the spring of 1933, decided that the ascension of Hitler and his Nazis was bad news for Germany, moved to remove Hitler by a coup, outlawed the Nazi party, and in ruling henceforth by military decree thereby ended more than a decade of democratic weakness that was the Weimar Republic.  What judgment would you cast?  (Turns out Tom Trinko over at has wondered the same thing.)

Of course you can only approve of this course with the perfect hindsight of knowing what actually happened after 1933 (or after 1938, when the Munich agreement may have forestalled a military move against Hitler).  Without today’s hindsight, a Wilsonian idealist in 1933 might well have condemned the German military, just as today’s State Department can’t speak with a clear voice about how we should think about the problems in Egypt.

So let’s be clear: the Muslim Brotherhood is a fascist political faction with murderous intent.  Full stop.  They not only deserve to be put down; they need to be put down if Egypt—and possibly the region as a whole—is going to have a future in the modern world.   The military rulers are absolutely correct to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood.  (Turkey actually has a specific article of its constitution banning sectarian political parties, sadly being undone bit by bit under the current regime.)  The loss of life in Egypt is horrible; but like Iran after 1979, we should reflect on how much more horrible it will be if the Muslim Brotherhood should gain complete power in Egypt (or elsewhere).  There can be little doubt that the current violence is a deliberate provocation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is perhaps worth recalling the view of John Stuart Mill from On Liberty:

[A] ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will gain an end, perhaps otherwise unobtainable.  Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.

It is far from clear the Egyptian military can meet this standard.  But what advice is Egypt getting from the United States about how to stabilize the situation?  It is hard to say from the outside, but it doesn’t appear we have given very good advice to Iraq or Afghanistan over the last decade on how to build a genuinely stable civil society, so I doubt we’re much better with Egypt.  The single most important reform the region needs is one that the United States, with its current wrongheaded multicultural sensitivities, seems unable to advocate: and end to all forms of sectarian rule.  In other words, the Arab nations need to understand the American principle of the mutual and reciprocal relation between religious freedom and civil rights, such that every election doesn’t risk the surrender of your civil rights if Sunnis defeat Shiites, or vice versa.  In other words, they need old-fashioned American constitutionalism.

That’s not the advice they have been receiving.  Law professor Ron Rotunda walked through the problem with his important article in the Wall Street Journal a month ago, and it’s worth revisiting:

Mr. Morsi tried to give his constitution a patina of respectability. Egypt invited U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to provide guidance during a four-day visit. Justice Ginsburg appeared on state television and said that, even though she much admires the U.S. Constitution, she “would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012.” She recommended consulting several other countries’ documents instead, including South Africa’s. . .

Sadly, the Egyptians took Justice Ginsburg’s advice and did not follow the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the Morsi constitution granted muted rights, which other provisions limited even further. For instance, Article 2 said that “the principles of Islamic law” are the “main source of legislation.” Article 44 prohibited “insulting of prophets.” Article 11 added that the state shall protect “morality, decency, and public order.” Under the Morsi constitution, an Egyptian court sentenced a woman and her seven children—an entire family—to 15 years’ imprisonment for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity. . .

Similarly, Article 48 of the Egyptian Constitution said, in effect, there is a free press as long as it does not contradict the Islamic religious laws known as Shariah. Under Article 81, rights and freedoms “shall be exercised insofar as they do not contradict the principles set out in the Chapter on State and Society in this constitution,” which declares that “Islam is the state’s religion” and Shariah is the main source of legislation.

Similarly our State Department “nation builders” in both Iraq and Afghanistan raised no objections to new constitutions that embraced Islam not only as a source of positive law, but as a pretext for restrictions on fundamental civil liberties.  Get ready for decades of sequels of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is the region does not begin to embrace political modernization based, ironically, on the old liberal principles of constitutionalism and civil liberty.

For additional thoughts on the subject of Egypt and modernization, check in with our friend Herbert Meyer.  He was on to this problem two years ago (when everyone else was still celebrating the end of Mubarak), and Herb is not surprised by what is happening now.

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