“Circumstances (which with some gentleman pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect,” Edmund Burke wrote in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” “The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”
I am a staunch supporter of the freedom agenda and believe liberal democracy is the most moral form of government. The United States should, generally, support freedom around the world wherever possible. America is, after all, the leader of the free world.
But I can’t support the revolution in Egypt, not because I think Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a great man or a humane leader, but because the circumstances of the revolution are problematic. Edmund Burke’s words seem as relevant today as ever.
“Abstractly speaking, government, as well as liberty is good,” he wrote. But, he noted, just because liberty in the abstract is good, didn’t mean he had to support the French Revolution.
“Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, upon the recovery of his natural rights?” he asked.
And so Egypt is where ideology meets circumstance. If Mubarak falls this way, in a revolutionary fury, a vacuum will be created. Who will fill it? Well, the best-organized opposition group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood. The same Muslim Brotherhood that spawned radical Islamist theorist Sayid Qutb, the same Muslim Brotherhood connected to Hamas, the same Muslim Brotherhood that helped inspire some of the leaders of the very terrorists that threaten the world today.
Sure, the Muslim Brotherhood may fight alongside true democrats in Egypt who are legitimately and heroically fighting for freedom and liberal democracy. They may even say that they want to work with the non-Islamist opposition factions in a post-Mubarak Egypt. But we have heard this before. In Iran, while Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters may have fought alongside more secular, democratic elements, the Islamic Republic ultimately purged them after the revolution was successful.
Can we afford to risk that in Egypt?
There doesn’t have to be a majority of Egyptians who are card carrying members of the Muslim Brotherhood for the Islamist organization to take power. They already have a significant level of support and there is evidence that even those not associated with the Muslim Brotherhood may be sympathetic enough towards the organization to line up behind them — providing them the support they need to implement their frightening vision.
Middle East scholar Barry Rubin pointed to a Pew poll in a recent column that showed 30 percent of Egyptians support Hezbollah, 49 percent support Hamas, and 20 percent support al-Qaeda. Further, it showed that 82 percent of Egyptians favor stoning for adulterers and 84 percent support the death penalty for those who convert away from Islam.
These numbers aren’t comforting. They appear to me to describe a public that would be willing to give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance at governance — and who wants to bet the Muslim Brotherhood would hold regular elections once entrenched in power? Not me.
While it would be far better to have a secular democratic government running Egypt, this is not the option we have. For all his many faults and his inhumane rule, Mubarak has maintained a cold, yet steady peace with Israel that has kept the two countries from engaging in war for more than three decades. He has enforced the blockade of Gaza against the terrorist group Hamas. He has cooperated with America in the War on Terror. A Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt will likely support Hamas, break off anti-terrorism cooperation with the United States and possibly push for war with Israel (a leading figure in the Brotherhood is reportedly already calling for Egyptians to prepare for war with Israel). What’s more, human rights violations would likely increase not decrease in the Islamic Republic of Egypt.
Despite what our foreign policy guru vice president says, Hosni Mubarak is in fact a dictator. There is no question about that. But things could be worse. Egypt could be a Sunni Iran or a Taliban state in the heart of the Arab world. We can’t take that risk.
What should the U.S. do? Who knows how much influence the U.S. even has at this point. History is in motion. It is far from clear whether Mubarak’s speech yesterday announcing he will not seek “reelection” in September will satisfy the street.
But we should have pushed Mubarak to liberalize long ago. It is worth noting that when we as Americans say we support democracy, we don’t just mean the act of voting for a leader. Our leaders often use the term democracy too loosely. We support liberal values that are necessary for the voting aspect of liberal democracy to function properly – freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc. Without those freedoms, democracy doesn’t really work. And the institutions that make democracy viable certainly do not exist right now in Egypt.
Since the protests began, I have been genuinely torn. There are certainly well meaning Egyptians in the street risking their life for freedom. It is hard not to be moved by that. I reevaluate my position every time I seen a brave Egyptian speak.
But Burke was right. Circumstances matter. And these circumstances appear horrific.