Close to the edge
Of all the troubling images from Cairo these days, none could be worse than the pictures of the many civilian casualties. But nearly as disturbing was footage from last week showing an Egyptian police vehicle toppling off the 6th of October Bridge, which spans the Nile in central Cairo. News accounts differed over whether the vehicle was pushed over by protesters or in a panic the driver burst through the bridge railing and plunged into the river. Either way, the bridge was badly damaged, the car was lost, the fate of its passengers unknown.
That picture is a miniature of a country that is already decaying, already facing enormous environmental and population challenges, already desperately in need of development and repair, destroying itself further. Who will pay to heal the human and material wounds Egypt is now inflicting on itself? Even billions of dollars from Gulf nations can’t indefinitely prop up a country of 85 million people, where roughly half the women can’t read. What Egyptians are doing to their nation is sheer madness.
What’s especially depressing is that the leadership and options needed to reverse these trends don’t seem to be on offer. Egyptians today are being given a choice between a military that seems to want to take Egypt back to 1952, when the army first seized power — and kept those Muslim Brothers in their place — and the Muslim Brothers, who want to go back to 622, to the birth of Islam and to a narrow, anti-pluralistic, anti-women, Shariah-dominated society — as if that is the answer to Egypt’s ills.
“Egypt’s striking lesson today is that its two most powerful, organized and trusted groups — the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces — both proved to be incompetent in the business of governance,” the political scientist Rami Khouri wrote in The Beirut Daily Star last week. “This is not because they do not have capable individuals and smart and rational supporters; they have plenty of those. It is rather because the ways of soldiers and spirituality are designed for worlds other than governance and equitably providing services and opportunities for millions of people from different religions, ideologies and ethnicities. ... The lack of other organized and credible indigenous groups of citizens that can engage in the political process and shape new constitutional systems is largely a consequence of how military officers, members of tribes, and religious zealots have dominated Arab public life for decades.”
How true. The Eastern Europeans had had experience with parliamentary democracy in the interwar period. So when communism was lifted in 1989, with the help of the European Union, they made relatively easy transitions to democratic capitalism. The East Asians had decades of dictators, but, unlike those in the Arab world, most of them were modernizers, who focused on building infrastructure, education, entrepreneurship and export-led economies that eventually produced middle classes so broad and educated that they relatively peacefully wrested their freedom from the generals. The East Asians also had Japan as a model — a country that said: “We’re behind, what’s wrong with us? We need to learn from those who are doing better.”
The Arab world did not have the roots of democracy that could quickly blossom or modernizing autocrats, who built broad, educated middle classes that could gradually take control. And it did not have an EU to act as a magnet and model. So when the lid came off with the Arab awakening, there was no broad-based progressive movement to effectively compete with the same old, same old: the military and Muslim Brotherhood.
I understand why so many Egyptians turned against the Brotherhood. It was stealing their revolution for its own stale agenda. But the best way to justify ousting the Brotherhood was for the military to put in place a government that really would get Egypt started on the long march to modernization, entrepreneurship, literacy for women and consensual and inclusive politics — inclusive even of Islamists — not another march in place under generals.
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi installed a cabinet with some good people; It had the potential to give birth to a third way. But before it could take two steps, the army and police launched a campaign to decapitate the Brotherhood that involved, appallingly, the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of unarmed people. The Brotherhood provoked some of this — happy to have some “martyrs” to delegitimize the army’s takeover and change the subject from its own misrule; Brotherhood sympathizers also burned nearly 40 churches and killed some police for good measure.
So, once again, Egyptians and their friends abroad are being polarized between the same two bad options. The hour is late. El-Sissi has got to pull back and empower the cabinet he appointed to produce a third way — an authentically modernizing, inclusive government. That is what the 2011 revolution was about. If he diverts Egypt from that goal, the way the Brotherhood did, if his only ambition is to be another Nasser and not a Mandela, Egypt is headed for a steep plunge, just like that police vehicle tumbling into the Nile.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.