Egypt – take the long view

Stopping the violence comes first. Realizing that democracies can take decades to emerge should be a cause for hope.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Egyptian soldiers move near a burned annex building of Rabaa Adawiya mosque after clearing away a protest camp around the mosque in Cairo Aug. 15. The military government said it was confronting 'terrorist acts' by the Muslim Brotherhood, a day after security forces raided the group's protest camps in Cairo and hundreds of people were killed.

John Kerry spoke the truth about the events in Egypt Wednesday:

“Violence is simply not a solution in Egypt or anywhere else,” the US secretary of State said. “Violence will not create a road map for Egypt’s future. Violence only impedes the transition to an inclusive civilian government, a government chosen in free and fair elections that governs democratically, consistent with the goals of the Egyptian revolution.”

He continued: “Violence and continued political polarization will only further tear the Egyptian economy apart and prevent it from growing and providing the jobs and the future that the people of Egypt want so badly.”

But what can be done to halt the violence in Egypt, where at least 638 protesters, and probably many more, presumed backers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been killed by Egyptian security forces acting on behalf of Egypt’s military-led interim government?

President Obama has canceled joint US-Egyptian military exercises scheduled for September. Next may come a withdrawal of $1.3 billion in annual US military aid to Egypt. (That program, however, has an element of domestic pork-barreling involved – building tanks and planes for Egypt creates valuable jobs in the United States – making it a more complex decision than it might seem.)

The first job in any conflagration is to put out the fire. Condemnation of the violence, and efforts to halt it quickly, remains Job 1 for diplomacy.

Imagining an Egypt that is both stable and democratic would now seem harder than ever. But that is exactly the vision that must be maintained.

It’s unclear whether the violence in Egypt is being provoked by either side as a cynical attempt to gain favor with international public opinion by trying to paint the other side as the aggressor. If so, those motives must be exposed and denounced.

The military government ignored international pleas to act with caution and attempted what appears to be brutal attacks on peaceful protesters. Some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have responded with violence of their own.

Revolutions are rarely short and simple. Progress comes in fits and starts. Backward steps can sink hopes for a time.

Russia today seems to be regressing toward authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin. But in the longer view this may be only one step backward in a march toward a true democracy that began decades ago in the heady days of glasnost and perestroika reforms in the late 1980s. Decades may lie ahead before the march to democracy is completed.

Arab Spring countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt are experiencing turmoil as they shift from autocracy to democracy, with Syria a particularly tragic case because of the immense hardships and loss of life taking place there amid what is now a civil war.

In 1848, revolutions against authoritarian regimes swept through dozens of countries in Europe and Latin America (an event captured in part in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”). Most failed in the short term, but they set the stage for the growth of the modern democracies found in those countries today.

The brief Morsi-led government had shown no real signs of being able to address the substantial needs of the Egyptian people, including more jobs, stability, and economic progress. The military regime looks to be heading back to the days of social stability under Hosni Mubarak, but with little personal freedom.

It’s unlikely that a rerun of the autocratic rule of Mubarak will win over a large Egyptian audience. Even a few precious months when Egyptians felt they could criticize their high officials openly – and that their views and hopes for the future mattered – won’t be forgotten, no matter who holds the reins of government.

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