What kind of democratic revolution brings charges against 19 Americanworkers who have been advocating democracy? The answer is that Egypt’s is a confused revolution, looking for people to blame for its troubles. The United States should stifle its anger for now — and avoid a hasty cutoff of aid that would make a bad situation worse.
The Egyptian revolution, a year on, is struggling to establish a government amid chaos. The spontaneous, leaderless uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak has given way, all too predictably, to a disorderly muddle in which anarchic gangs roam the streets, ideologically driven parties dominate and moderate voices are demoralized.
Faiza Abou el-Naga, the Egyptian minister who launched the witch hunt against the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that employed the Americans, warned darkly of the “government’s seriousness about discovering some of these groups’ plans to destabilize Egypt.”
If you’ve read Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution,” you know what could be coming next: widening chaos and economic trauma, a rising chorus of blame against foreign manipulators — followed by the strong leader, the man or mullah on horseback, who promises to restore order, security and national purpose.
But there’s another possibility, which is that the young activists who made the revolution will continue to demand the freedom, dignity and social justice for which they risked their lives a year ago. In this evolving situation, the United States would make a mistake by drawing battle lines too early — say, by announcing a cutoff in aid to the Egyptian military and the civilian government in retaliation for the charges against the American NGO workers. We would make America appear to be the foreign enemy, which we’re not.
Let’s step back from the chaos in Cairo to make a few simple observations:
First, the NGO activists weren’t doing anything sinister. I’ve been reading regular reports from the National Democratic Institute activists in Cairo over the past year, and they’re championing the new Egypt, not trying to subvert it. Their goal is to help train Egyptians in the skills they’ll need to make democracy and openness work; the same holds for the other three U.S. groups whose members have been charged: the International Republican Institute, Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists. If they failed to file all the necessary permissions in this paperwork-mad society, that should be fixed; but if supporting democracy has become a crime in Egypt, that’s sad.
Second, despite the benign mission of the NGOs, it’s understandable why some Egyptians are nervous. This is a country trying to free itself from generations of subservience and manipulation by foreign powers, often led by the United States. If they’re paranoid about “foreign hands” meddling in their affairs, they have reason to be. And this isn’t some weirdo Third World anxiety. Imagine the reaction if the French government was discovered to be quietly opening offices across the United States for an “Endowment for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” to advance Gallic values; Americans would not be amused.
Third, my bet is still on the young people of Egypt. Whether they’re in secular groups or the Muslim Brotherhood, they are the voices for change. They share a common commitment to empower citizens, which you can recall going back to the foundation stones — Twitter postings using the hashtag #Jan25, or the Facebook site “We are all Khaled Said.” These networks are dispersed, and they don’t all speak with one voice. But they have the tools for building a new Egypt in which the government and army will be accountable to the people.
Here’s what does worry me, as I look at events in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, having received strong backing in the parliamentary elections, is now poised to govern. This is a group that proclaims “Islam is the answer.” But is it open to other answers, from believers and nonbelievers alike? That’s the biggest question for the new Egypt, and it’s why I hope the Muslim Brotherhood will join in calls for the release of the NGO workers.
Turkey is often cited as a model for democratic political reform in Egypt, and so it is — up to a point. But if I thought that the new Egyptian government was going to reduce the independence of the media, the courts and the military, in the same way the Turkish government has done over the past several years, then I would get nervous. Egyptian democracy is a work in progress, and the Brotherhood and everyone else should keep moving toward more freedom, not less.