Aug 23, 2013

    Egypt needs a third way out

    The New York Times

    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 Muslim Brotherhood members 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, Syariah-dominated society.

    "Egypt's striking lesson today is that its two most powerful, organised and trusted groups - the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces - both proved to be incompetent in the business of governance," 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 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 organised 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 experience with parliamentary democracy in the interwar period.

    So, when communism was lifted in 1989, they made relatively easy transitions to democratic capitalism, with the help of the European Union.

    The East Asians had decades of dictators, but - unlike those in the Arab world - most of them were modernisers, 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 blossom quickly, or modernising autocrats who built broad, educated middle classes that could take control gradually.

    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 compete effectively with the same old, same old: The military and the 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 modernisation, entrepreneurship, literacy for women, and consensual and inclusive politics - inclusive even of Islamists - not another march in place under generals.

    General 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.

    So, once again, Egyptians and their friends abroad are being polarised between the same two bad options. The hour is late.

    Gen El-Sissi has got to pull back and empower the Cabinet he appointed to produce a third way - an authentically modernising, inclusive government.

    That is what the 2011 revolution was about. If he diverts Egypt from that goal and if his only ambition is to be another (former president) Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein and not a Nelson Mandela, Egypt is headed for a steep plunge.