Protests in Egypt: Let’s Support What We Might Not Like

I hope everything turns out well for the millions of Egyptians protesting their repressive and corrupt government. If the fall of the ben Ali government in Tunisia (a smaller and more economically advanced country without a large military) got the attention of other leaders across the region, the massive protests in Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world with a huge and ubiquitious security and military establishment, must have them quivering in their bloodied boots.  

It’s not just the governments of those countries that are shivering: the U.S. government, too, must be concerned. After all, U.S. foreign policy for decades has favored friendly but often undemocratic and corrupt governments over the possibility of democratically chosen but potentially unfriendly and unstable governments – a calculus designed to ensure stability in an exceptionally unstable part of the world that we depend on for much of our oil.

Unfortunately that very policy has helped produced much of the anti-American attitude in the region, not to mention create support for groups that, to us, are nothing more than terrorist organizations. We’ve basically said, “Friendly governments who ensure order are more important than human rights.” We’ve chosen realpolitik over our values – and people notice these things (particularly when the truncheon striking them is wielded by a military we train and support).  

To me, the 2006 Hamas win in the Palestinian Territories captures this dilemma. On one hand, it was tremendous cause for celebration for those who support democracy: an Arab “country” held a relatively free and fair election, and the opposition won. Unheard of. On the other hand, Hamas is a terrorist organization, and is hardly friendly to Western interests.  

If free and fair elections were held in many Arab countries, the result would likely be a spate of Islamist governments similar to Hamas – governments that certainly wouldn’t be friends to the U.S., at least initially. (I write “likely” but “hopefully” could also be inserted as another potential outcome is instability, not a fun possibility in a region with so many weapons. After all, it is from the chaos of Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Pakistani tribal areas, and other poorly and/or nongoverned regions that much of the threat of Islamic terrorism emanates.)  

So what to do? For one, we can start to understand that while we in the West look at Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood and see radical Islamic organizations that often support (or directly carry out) terrorist attacks, the people in these countries often see these organizations as competent and uncorruptible providers of basic services (health care, education, etc.). In other words, these groups are doing what their own governments often can’t or won’t do.  

Second, we need to understand the reality of governing smooths out the extremes. Say the Muslim Brotherhood wins some sort of free election in Egypt. Are they going to completely shun the U.S., which provides significant aid to Egypt? No. They can’t. Instead, they’ll have to temper their radical edges and learn to work with the U.S. – eventually.  

Finally, we can admit that democracy is a messy business (just look at the current state of the U.S.). Sometimes we need to work with people we don’t like and don’t agree with. But it’s the inalienable right of the people to choose their own government. By supporting this process, even when it seems against our own interests, we can begin the slow process of rolling back the impression (often quite fair) that we place our own economic and security interests above our values.

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