A few weeks ago, as the main podcast was wrapping up with its signature predictions for the big story of the following week, our own James Lileks -- in a rare moment of fallibility -- felt compelled to admit the shortcomings of his soothsaying powers after the prognostication that he had been nurturing for months -- that elections in Egypt would not occur -- was invalidated by events on the ground.
I shared James's pessimism and was equally surprised at how events unfolded. However, I think the news out of the region today essentially validates our favorite podcast emcee. As the Christian Science Monitor reports it:
Egypt’s presidential runoff election on Saturday and Sunday was supposed to be democratic. But that’s in doubt now that the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, comprised of judges appointed by ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, pulled a soft coup on Thursday.
The court dissolved the newly elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, placing power solely in the hands of interim military rulers who appear to be paving the way for a return to the pre-revolution days of the old guard.
Anti-democratic? You bet. The worst thing for the nation? I'm not so sure. We basically don't have the luxury of seriously entertaining the idea of "good options" for most of the Middle East. Instead, it's usually a matter of determining which way forward is the least unpalatable. A recent essay by George Friedman at Stratfor (which predates the runoff election) does a very good job of explaining why that's the case in Egypt. An excerpt:
This is not how the West, nor many Egyptians, thought the Arab Spring would turn out in Egypt. Their mistake was overestimating the significance of the democratic secularists, how representative the anti-Mubarak demonstrators were of Egypt as a whole, and the degree to which those demonstrators were committed to Western-style democracy rather than a democracy that represented Islamist values.
What was most underestimated was the extent to which the military regime had support, even if Mubarak did not. Shafiq, the former prime minister in that regime, could very well win. The regime may not have generated passionate support or even been respected in many ways, but it served the interests of any number of people. Egypt is a cosmopolitan country, and one that has many people who still take seriously the idea of an Arab, rather than Islamist, state. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamism and have little confidence in the ability of other parties, such as the socialists, who came in third, to protect them. For some, such as the Copts, the Islamists are an existential threat. The military regime, whatever its defects, is a known bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. The old order is attractive to many because it is known; what the Muslim Brotherhood will become is not known and is frightening to those committed to secularism. They would rather live under the old regime.
What was misunderstood was that while there was in fact a democratic movement in Egypt, the liberal democrats who wanted a Western-style regime were not the ones exciting popular sentiment. What was exciting it was the vision of a popularly elected Islamist coalition moving to create a regime that institutionalized Islamic religious values.
Westerners looked at Egypt and saw what they wanted and expected to see. They looked at Egyptians and saw themselves. They saw a military regime operating solely on brute force without any public support. They saw a mass movement calling for the overthrow of the regime and assumed that the bulk of the movement was driven by the spirit of Western liberalism. The result is that we have a showdown not between the liberal democratic mass and a crumbling military regime but between a representative of the still-powerful regime (Shafiq) and the Muslim Brotherhood.
While it's not a fact that I relish, I'm reminded of something I frequently observed during my time in Washington: in foreign affairs, it was the pessimists who were usually best prepared to deal with reality.