While there is ample reason for concern, the turmoil of today presents a chance to advance democratic and free market norms in Egypt. To understand how this might occur, we must first understand the political context of the contemporary Islamic world.
Political Islam is one of the two alternatives to Western-style democracy and capitalism today (the other being authoritarian capitalism such as in China). Political Islam finds support in the Muslim world for at least two reasons. First, like communism, it gives hope to the poor and oppressed. Second, it has greater resonance and resilience than communism because it is a religion and therefore unquestioned by much of the populace, especially in conservative and rural areas. This then, is the context in which events in Egypt should be understood.
Egypt is entering a dangerous time, characterized by increasing civil strife. There are four possible outcomes to the current situation. First, and least likely, full blown revolution could occur. But while the Islamists and especially the Muslim Brotherhood (itself one group within the broader Islamist movement) are strong, the state and its security apparatus is better armed, better funded, and have long dominated Egyptian society.
Second, and almost as unlikely, would be a compromise. But neither side seems incentivized to compromise. Moreover, a great deal of blood has been shed at this point, dampening the motivation to compromise.
Third and more likely, would be ongoing, low level violence and civil strife. This would be enough to damage Egypt’s fragile economy, but not enough to overthrow the government.
Fourth and most likely, would be full blown repression by the state, followed by a re-imposition of authoritarian rule. This last result does nothing to address Egypt’s underlying economic and social problems. It allows current problems to fester and build like an infection that will eventually destroy the already sick patient. For the US, each of these four outcomes is problematic, as is the prospect of some combination of these outcomes. Still, there may be a silver lining to the recent events in Egypt.
The silver lining to Egypt’s current turmoil is that Egypt has been shaken and the military has seen clearly one possible future — theocracy. Former defenders of the regime do not fare well in theocracies, as the Iranian army learned in the early 1980s. Egypt’s military can avoid this fate by allowing civil society to blossom and putting the macroeconomic foundations in place for long-term growth. These two variables are mutually reinforcing; they also yield liberalism.
Alone, economic reform is stifled by corruption, especially in Egypt. Similarly, open civil society without economic growth simply gives room for protest and revolution (ask the communists of Eastern Europe). But combined, a vibrant civil society inhibits corruption while macroeconomic stability provides jobs and occupies the masses. In the long run, new wealth is created and new power bases arise in society. These new power bases, in turn, demand to share political power, and therefore support liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy cannot be equated to simply voting, however. The U.S. has repeatedly made this mistake. Instead, as Fareed Zakaria noted over 15 years ago, it is the institutions and individual liberties that make liberalism; voting is overrated. Rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, other civil liberties, and unbiased institutions are central.
The devil is in the details, of course. The Egyptian military will ultimately be giving up economic power and political power. But what is will receive is a permanent lease on life and role protecting Egyptian society. The Egyptian people will receive a vibrant, growing society, rather than one doomed to eventual revolution, religious rule, and 21st century feudalism. The US will receive a liberal democracy that respects all religions and enriches its poor —this in answer to today’s dominant Middle East narrative of theocracy and political Islam.
This opportunity may not come again.
Michael Tkacik is director of the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Honors.