WASHINGTON — Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi knows neither Thomas Jefferson's advice that “great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities” nor the description of Martin Van Buren as a politician who “rowed to his object with muffled oars.” Having won just 52 percent of the vote, Morsi pursued his objective — putting Egypt irrevocably on a path away from secular politics and social modernity — noisily and imprudently.
It is difficult to welcome a military overthrow of democratic results. It is, however, more difficult to regret a prophylactic coup against the exploitation of democratic success to adopt measures inimical to the development of a democratic culture.
Tyranny comes in many flavors. Some are much worse than others because they are more comprehensive and potentially durable. The tyranny portended by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood promised no separation of politics and religion, hence the impossibility of pluralism, and hostility to modernity that guaranteed economic incompetence. Theologized politics, wherein compromise is apostasy, points toward George Orwell's vision of totalitarianism — “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Military despotism might be merely for a while, although perhaps for quite a while: The 1952 Egyptian coup inaugurated six decades of military rule. Egypt's military tyranny is preferable to Morsi's because it is more mundane. Mussolini's fascism, being Italian, was tyranny tempered by anarchy; Egyptian military tyranny has been tempered by corruption because the military is thoroughly entangled with Egypt's economy. A famous description of Prussia — less a state with an army than an army with a state — fits Egypt, but greed might concentrate Egyptian military minds on the advantages of economic dynamism, which depends on liberalization.
What was optimistically and prematurely called the “Arab Spring” was centered in Tahrir Square in the capital of the most populous Arab nation. Western media, and hence Western publics, were mesmerized by young protesters wielding smartphones and coordinating through social media their uprising against the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Smartphones are luxury goods in a nation in which about 40 percent of the population lives on no more than $2 a day. In the short term, meaning for the foreseeable future, Egypt's best hope is for an authoritarianism amenable to amelioration.
Jeane Kirkpatrick came to Ronald Reagan's attention partly because he was a constant and serious reader whose fare included Commentary magazine. In its November 1979 issue, Reagan found Kirkpatrick's “Dictatorships & Double Standards.” His future ambassador to the United Nations made an argument that is pertinent to America's deals with Egypt after the military coup:
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