No easy choices in Egyptian dilemma



More than 600 dead and 4,000 wounded is excessive butchery.

Obama has asked the Egyptian military junta to exercise two virtues that are foreign to that country’s culture and tradition: tolerance and moderation.

Although the U.S. president also said that his country could not tell the Egyptians how to conduct their internal affairs — and didn’t want to — that’s precisely what he did. He asked for free elections and power limited by law.

Frankly, it seems to me very unlikely that they’ll comply.

There is no doubt that the United States has been the world’s most successful nation, throughout the 20th century and the start of this century.

The republican experiment of 13 colonies, which seemed condemned to fail in the late 18th century, gave way to an astoundingly rich and strong nation that today is the only superpower on Earth.

Other countries can voluntarily imitate the U.S. model, but it cannot be induced from outside.

Contrary to what happened in the country of Washington and Jefferson, the nucleus of tension that exists between the Arab Muslims does not consist in limiting the authority of the government, protecting individual rights and creating relationships of power based on meritocracy and equality under the law (for which tolerance and moderation are indispensable), as the United States established when it broke away from England.

The conflict in the Arab world is of another nature. It seeks to settle — by force — the deadly confrontation between secular military dictatorships, generally anti-West, that consider themselves progressive, though they progress very little, and the supporters of an oppressive theocratic model that defends the creation of an Islamic state ruled by Quran-based law, whose main objective is to destroy the state of Israel and fight the infidels, whether they are Coptic Christians or Lebanese Maronites.

It is, in the end, a knife fight between military men who are secular, hard-headed, ferocious and authoritarian, with nationalistic political ideas stained by socialist superstitions, and religious men who are imbued with fantastic beliefs and have a commitment to Allah to subject mankind to the authority of the Quran.

To the rest of the world, therefore, it is generally not a question of choosing between liberal democrats and religious fundamentalists (that would be far too easy), but between despotic military men, usually corrupted and murderous, and religious fundamentalists, almost always aggressive and dangerous.

Washington does not understand this fatal dilemma. Many politicians and functionaries lack ethnocentrism. They think that all countries can and should create a model of state presided by individual freedom, served by a government controlled by the Constitution and limited by checks and balances.

In reality, that formula is extraordinary but, in order for it to work, there must first be a society (or at least a ruling elite) willing to practice tolerance, defined as the decision to coexist peacefully with everyone we do not like, to place ourselves under the rule of law, to admit that our truths and convictions are not unique and infallible and to exercise civic cordiality with an adversary whom we don’t have to love but who deserves our respect.

In Arab societies, those factors are exceptional. There are individuals who possess that profile and even gather in small institutions that proclaim such rules of the game. I have met liberals who are Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese and Tunisian, which makes me think that they must also exist in Egypt and in the rest of the Arab geography. But they lack the specific weight to turn their countries in the direction the Americans took on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia.

So long as that change in values does not occur, it is naive to try to choose between “good” and “bad” Arab rulers. The alternative is a lot more agonizing.

© Firmas Press

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