Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Terrible Choice



The New York Times reports:

The ferocity of the attacks by security forces on Islamist protesters in Cairo this week appears to have been a deliberate calculation of the military-appointed government to provoke violence from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, a number of Arab and Western historians of Middle East politics said Friday.
The objective, they said in interviews, was to demonize the Islamists in the eyes of Egypt’s broader populace, validate the July 3 ouster of the Islamist president and subvert any possibility that dialogue would reintegrate the Muslim Brotherhood into Egypt’s mainstream politics.
This highlights the terrible choice that the Muslim Brotherhood faces as it struggles against Egypt's junta.  You can gather in large unarmed groups, which are then easy to slaughter.  (The soldiers can boldly murder the protesters without putting themselves in much physical danger.)  Or you can try protecting yourself, at the expense of allowing your movement to be portrayed as thuggish/dangerous/terrorist (a characterization that the Egyptian media and much of the western media will be all too happy to embrace).

I think a lot of people in the U.S. have a rosy view of this, because of our own experience with the civil rights movement, which largely succeeded through nonviolent methods.  But as terrible as the U.S. was for black people, there were powerful forces trying to protect them and the media was ready to tell enough of the truth that it would have been impossible, for instance, to suppress civil rights protests by firing on the crowds.  Tactics that worked for Gandhi and MLK won't necessarily work for the Muslim Brotherhood.

By way of example, here is a racist thug attacking a black journalist in Little Rock in 1957:


And here is a black girl walking into Little Rock Central High School:


Vicious right?  But here is what happened next:


Those are soldiers of the 101st Airborne, sent by President Eisenhower to protect the students.  The racists who wanted to harass the students were driven away at bayonet point.  (I don't want to suggest things were easy after the troops showed up - the Little Rock Nine were still subject to all kinds of harassment and abuse.  But the federal government was on their side and was ready to use violence to protect their rights, and without that the students would have had a much harder time.)

The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't have the U.S. army on its side.  It doesn't have the equivalent of a New York Times or Washington Post or Chicago Defender.  It doesn't have a massive operation by the FBI to infiltrate and destroy its persecutors.  And so those Muslim boys are dying by the hundreds and if they do anything to protect themselves they will be condemned around the world.  The Egyptian military knows this and is taking the opportunity to unleash large-scale violence with impunity.

It goes without saying that U.S. conservatives think we should back the Egyptian military:

The Brothers refused to budge or engage in political negotiations, insisting on nothing less than Morsi’s full restoration to the presidency. They wanted martyrs and, sadly, they got them — in the hundreds, though not without taking at least 43 Egyptian policemen with them.
But the military’s horrific violence yesterday does not alter the U.S.’s calculus. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military government are now at war, and the latter remains the best hope for securing American interests and, ultimately, a free Egypt. We should therefore continue our financial and matériel support for the Egyptian military and maintain as close a relationship as possible to push the government toward our objectives.
They wanted martyrs.  (I suppose the protesters at Tianenman "wanted martyrs" too.)  They are now at war with the military government.  See how this works?

14 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

I thought the Egyptian revolution was a bad idea and I confess that I'm rooting for the army, on the whole, though very half-heartedly. It is quite likely that the army is going to try and co-opt some degree of religious sentiment, persecute Coptic Christians, etc. but the Muslim Brotherhood seems virtually certain to do so. I think minority rights are a much more important thing than majority rule, and it seems to me that military rule is at least _less certain_ to be bad for Egypt in this sense.

To the extent that one ever expected "moderate Islamists" to run essentially liberal governments, I think events in Tunisia and Turkey have been quite disheartening.

12:23 PM  
Blogger James said...

It is not at all clear to me that the Muslim Brotherhood could have won another election. And if you can't win elections, you can't persecute anyone. If the original (anti-MB) protesters and the military had simply forced new elections, the transfer of power could have been accomplished with a minimum of discord. The liberals' decision to align themselves with the coup was disastrous and it seems to have poisoned Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future. I don't want to see the Coptics persecuted but nor do I want to see thousands of Muslims slaughtered.

2:01 PM  
Blogger James said...

I also think the notion that "Islamists" are unfit for democracy is dangerous. If that is the case, then what is to be done? Secularist military government as in Algeria? As between Algeria and Turkey I will take Turkey any day.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I don't think there are any good answers; I also don't think, however, that your comparison between Algeria and Turkey is just, because it isn't ceteris paribus. Perhaps a less invidious comparison is between Turkey ca. 1995 and Turkey today; I imagine I'd go with the former. Similarly with Egypt under Mubarak vs. under Morsi. (I don't know that much about public opinion in Egypt, but it would surprise me if the liberals there had a shot electorally...)

As a matter of principle, I think a society that denies people the vote but allows them basic day-to-day freedoms is obviously better than one with suffrage and no other rights. In practice, a military dictatorship will not be reliably liberal in a place where the populace isn't, as that would conflict with its primary objective of staying in power -- although there are incentives for (say) not imposing sharia, such as the fear of not being invited to fancy dinners, that might be more powerful for a dictator. It is not difficult to find historical examples in which dictators and/or monarchs were much more tolerant than the contemporary man-on-the-street.

I do also think, along these lines, that it is wrongheaded to compare the MB with MLK. It seems to me that there's a large moral distinction between the right to vote and the right to pursue happiness, not be discriminated against, etc. The latter is fundamental; the former, at best, an instrumental right based on the observation that most alternatives to democracy are worse than democracy.

2:46 PM  
Blogger James said...

I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood will acquiesce in its disenfranchisement as easily as did their Turkish counterparts, nor should they.

But leaving that aside, I half-agree with your point about voting. I think voting is mostly instrumental, but I think it is a vastly more powerful instrument than you do (and I think good dictatorships are pretty rare). I think if the Irish had enjoyed sovereignty during the potato famine essentially no one would have died. Political scientists have shown that Muslims in India are less likely to die in communal violence in states where they are a powerful electoral bloc (the government protects them). I think blacks in the southern United States, while subject to discrimination through this day, advanced tremendously upon enactment of the Voting Rights Act. It very soon became unthinkable that police officers would murder civil rights workers or that they would turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful protesters. Giving blacks the vote was far more efficacious than anything else the federal government could have done.

Democracy is obviously subject to abuse but it remains one of the best institutions available to us and it is not to be cast aside lightly.

And by the way, while a hypothetical election might not have been won outright by the liberals, it seems likely that the Muslim Brotherhood would have been thrown out of office. What the liberals needed to do was to organize a political party, but it was too tempting to have their political opponents jailed or shot instead. Giving in to that temptation was a blunder of huge proportions.

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