As the Egyptian military consolidates control by murdering pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and declaring a state of emergency, we may be witnessing the most dangerous potential for Arab radicalization since the two Palestinian intifadas. Despite the resignation Wednesday of Mohamed ElBaradei, the vice president, in opposition to the Egyptian junta's action, the discomfiting fact is that most of Egypt's liberal "democrats"—along with the United States—have never looked more hypocritical. If the bloody crackdown is allowed to continue while the U.S. and West do nothing, the actions of the Egyptian military could de-legitimize democratic change in the Arab world for a generation or more.
And for Washington, a dream that began with the neoconservative push to turn Iraq into a "model democracy" after the 2003 invasion—the somewhat naïve Western hope that the Arab nations would catch up with the rest of the world—may already be dead. Worse, the loss of moderate Islamist alternatives, and the failure of democracy, could supply al-Qaida with its biggest recruiting campaign since 9/11.
The images in Egypt are excruciating to behold, both in a literal and philosophical sense. In what appeared to be more of a direct military assault than a police-style crowd-clearing exercise, Egyptian forces killed more than 500 people, most of them supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi who were engaged in nothing more offensive than a series of sit-ins. Suddenly, in one awful day, the exercise of the democratic rights and ideals that are so dear to America's self-image—and which have formed the heart of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War—were rendered all but irrelevant to many Arabs, especially because of Washington's mild response. Apart from a few dissenters such as ElBaradei, the once-inspiring secularists who massed in Tahrir Square to oust Hosni Mubarak have now repudiated those democratic rights and values by continuing to support the bloody crackdown. And while the Obama administration issued a rote condemnation, the lack of any more dramatic response continues to fritter away what little moral authority America has left.
The administration's initial response, voiced by White House spokesman Josh Earnest from the president's vacation spot on Martha's Vineyard, was mostly an exercise in posterior-covering. Earnest urged the Egyptian government to refrain from violence even as the violence was fully underway. He added that "we also strongly oppose a return to a State of Emergency law, and call on the government to respect basic human rights such as freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process under the law," even as the Egyptian government was clearly not respecting any of those things, and had already declared a state of emergency.
Secretary of State John Kerry also condemned the military's actions, calling "this a pivotal moment for all Egyptians," but then left the podium without taking questions.
What the administration must also consider—and it has been well behind the curve here—is that Egypt may only be the current epicenter of the radicalization phenomenon. The danger goes well beyond Cairo. Consider:
- In Iraq and Syria, a newly renamed al-Qaida umbrella group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is dramatically expanding its presence in both countries, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
- In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the secular opposition and the ruling Islamist Ennahda party have grown more and more polarized, and two leading secular politicians have been assassinated. The secularists, apparently inspired by the ouster of Morsi in Egypt, have held daily mass protests in an effort to dissolve the national assembly.
- Even in Afghanistan there is a danger of re-radicalization despite the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives the United States spent there in what has amounted to America's longest war. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, President Hamid Karzai is considering anointing as his successor the man who brought Osama bin Laden to the country, Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, an Islamist warlord and the man who mentored 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Marc Lynch, an expert in the Arab world at George Washington University, says that if the Muslim Brotherhood separates itself permanently from the democratic process—and its leaders have vowed to do so until Morsi is restored—then the moderate Islamists the West was hoping to bring into the government may grow scarce. That, in turn, will empower and reinvigorate the more radical al-Qaida-linked groups who preach the use of force. "What Islamist can now plausibly argue that democratic participation works?" he says. "Many Islamists will likely pull back from politics for a while, go underground, or retreat to charity work, but some portion are going to find extremist ideas much more convincing now. Only takes a small number to make a difference, remember."
Lynch's assessment is endorsed by Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA expert in the region and a conservative commentator at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy. "For radical Islamists who thrive on tyranny, the Nile Valley has again become exceptionally fertile ground," Gerecht says. "The secular crowd blew it. They can try to walk away from the military now … but it's too late. Egyptian society is badly, probably irretrievably, polarized with the potential for horrendous violence. The secular crowd who thought they'd pulled off a 'coup-volution' with Morsi's downfall have guaranteed that we only see devolution in Egypt, either to an increasing sad, morally corroding, impoverished society, where liberals have no future, or to an explosion that may consume the country."
Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, agrees that an excessive fear and loathing of the secularists for Morsi and the Brotherhood may have triggered the current disaster, and it's difficult to see how to turn things around. "The secular-leaning opposition never allowed Mohamed Morsi a honeymoon period," Gerges says.
In the saddest irony of all, the ultimate outcome could be a return to the Arab ancien regime: the pre-Arab Spring world of retrograde military rule, with radical Islamists as the generals' chief opposition. "There have already been calls by extremists, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, current chief of al-Qaida, to renounce the electoral box and rely on force as the most effective means to establish God's kingdom on earth," says Gerges. "Although the majority of Islamists will not buy Zawahiri's faulty goods, some would do so out of rage at the hijacking of the toppling of the first democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt's modern history."
As it has for the last two years, the Obama administration is still struggling with the appropriate response. But the perception abroad is that the administration has vacillated without any coherent policy. Initially during the Arab Spring the administration defended its old autocratic allies, such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Yemen's Ali Saleh. Then it moved to championing the young secularists in the street, with hopes of liberal democracy that now look as naive as the visions of the George W. Bush-era neoconservatives. After the election of Morsi, the administration lurched in yet another direction, embracing the Islamist president and the Muslim Brotherhood, even to the exclusion of secularists. And when Morsi was ousted on July 3, the administration avoided calling it a coup so as not to jeopardize its aid relationship with the Egyptian military.
To be sure, there was never any easy course—no obvious choice between an alarmingly Islamist president, which Morsi was becoming, and the military junta that succeeded him. But for months critics of the administration's approach have been urging it to at least speak loudly and clearly, using the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid and military supplies as leverage, in demanding that first the Morsi government and then the military junta uphold democratic principles. That did not happen. And it may be too late now to alter the terrible path that Egypt is on.