Once again, the American administration finds itself in the situation where it doesn’t really know exactly how to deal with an enigmatic Middle East. This time, it’s Egypt that is teaching Americans how complex this turbulent region is.
From the standpoint of Washington, something good must have happened in Egypt in the last two years. After decades of dictatorship, it seemed that democracy had eventually prevailed. The many Egyptians who took to Tahrir Square in January 2011 chanting, “Enough is enough,” finally got , in the eternal words of President Lincoln, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
But did they really? The Muslim Brotherhood movement, which for eight decades has prepared itself for taking over the government in Egypt, managed to snatch the revolution from the hands of the people who had generated it. Gaining power by using free elections — an instrument of democracy in which they have never believed — the Muslim Brothers quickly drafted a constitution that was meant to turn Egypt into a country ruled entirely by the laws of Islam.
This step was not only an abuse of the will of many Egyptians, but it also failed in every other aspect. Egypt, already suffering from chronic socio-economic malaise, found itself in a much more serious situation, which deteriorated last week into a popular revolt. The army, being the only functioning organ in the Egyptian executive branch, felt it was its duty in such a crisis to step in, and while twisting the democratic rules of the game, restore public order and thus serve the best interests of the nation.
This is not unprecedented, even in Western democracies. It was none other than President Lincoln, who, in the first days of the Civil War, found it necessary to suspend a constitutional right, the habeas corpus writ — the right of every citizen to a due process of law. Defending his act before a perplexed Congress, in a special session on July 4, 1861, Lincoln, the master of explaining the most difficult issues in few simple words, said: “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”
The Congress endorsed the president’s action, but some remained unconvinced, among them the chief justice at that time, Roger Taney. In his Ex parte Merryman opinion he argued that while the president’s duty was to “faithfully execute” the laws, it didn’t imply that he had to execute them himself, or to use the military in order to usurp judiciary powers. An angry Lincoln threatened to arrest the chief justice.
Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s strongman, graduated from Pennsylvania’s U.S. Army War College in 2006. I’m not sure that when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called him last week that the two actually discussed that old American constitutional debate. I’m pretty confident, though, that hanging in the air was the issue of much-needed U.S. aid to Egypt, when U.S. law prohibits the administration from supplying aid to countries that have gone through a military coup. I guess, then, that between Hagel’s lines there was a silent wish that whatever happens in Egypt, it shouldn’t look like a military coup.
At first, it looked like the plan had worked. In his dramatic televised speech, Gen. el-Sissi, surrounded by an impressive representation of the Egyptian civic and religious communities (not the ousted Muslim Brothers, of course), declared that the military would stay out of politics, and in a distant reverse of President Lincoln’s feud with his chief justice, the Egyptian general announced that the president of the Constitutional Court will serve as an interim president until elections are held.
This was a very powerful speech, much better than the one el-Sissi made in 2011, when, after some female Egyptian protesters had been subjected to “virginity tests” conducted by the army, he justified the humiliating acts. Just a reminder of what a long way Egypt still has to go when it comes to real democracy.
Anyway, to complicate things even further, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoiled the party by declaring that U.S. law is clear: “Aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
I don’t envy President Obama, who will have to mobilize his best oratory to explain to his fellow Americans what’s going on in this highly delicate matter. I guess he will not dare tell them the plain truth — that in certain areas of the world, Western democracy is not the cure to all problems. On the contrary, when used by un-democratic forces, it makes the lives of the people involved even worse.
Remember the elections in Iran in 1979, which doomed the Iranian people to the oppressive rule of the ayatollahs, and the 2006 elections in Gaza, which left the people there suffering under Hamas.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.