Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

American Political Values and the Egyptian Dilemma

Timothy Sherratt


August 23, 2013

By Timothy Sherratt 

Earlier this week, Senator John McCain argued for cutting off military aid to Egypt in response to the bloody suppression of protests by the Egyptian military: “For us to sit by and watch this happen is a violation of everything that we stood for.” And he went on, “We’re not sticking to our values.”

Maybe I need a primer in diplomacy or moral reasoning, or both, but Senator McCain’s black-and-white world looks gray to me.

Egypt appears on the brink of civil war, or at least a period of prolonged conflict. Supporters of ousted President Mohammad Morsi insist they will continue protests that have seen nearly a thousand fatalities in the last week. Those supporters include ordinary citizens and heavily armed fighters capable of launching deadly rocket-propelled grenade attacks on police stations.

Criticism of the Morsi government has been harsh and his removal welcomed in some quarters domestically. The popular opposition that was growing at the time of his ouster helped provide justification, or cover, for the army’s action. Even so, a democratically elected government has been removed by force rather than by defeat at the polls.

Consider the moral and physical plight of religious minorities for a moment. AsiaNews has reported the destruction of many churches, convents, and Christian businesses, along with some deaths and many injuries in the recent days of violent protest alone. Leaders of Coptic and Anglican churches describe a catch-22: Choose between a democratically elected state apparatus that does not protect against hate crimes or an unelected military junta that preserves lives and property. It is a dilemma few of us would relish. And I suggest we suspend hasty judgment on the choices religious minorities do make.  

These religious sources provide accounts of the recent violence somewhat at odds with mainstream media. Responding to recent attacks on churches in his diocese by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Anglican Archbishop Mouneer Anis reported restrained behavior on the part of police in ending one set of demonstrations, “using tear gas only when it was necessary.” He also reported police discovery of large caches of weapons and ammunition at one of the Cairo sites allegedly used by protesters. Meanwhile, the larger Coptic Church has borne the brunt of extensive violence by Muslim attackers, and Coptic leaders have issued several calls for protection of Egypt’s Christians in the present situation of unrest.

Revolutions are presumptively legitimate in a nation founded on revolt. To Americans, revolution’s correlates are freedom, self-government, and consent as the condition for exercising authority. Stumbling in their first experiment in governing the newly free nation, the Constitution’s framers swiftly re-mapped self-government and enshrined basic human liberties as government’s proper end. Revolution is costly, our American narrative tells us, but it bears good fruit in the end. 

The source of Senator McCain’s criticism of the Administration lies in this American narrative where documented oppression justified a popular rebellion. Popular rebellion then resulted in forging a new social contract based on consent of the governed. In McCain’s view, Egypt’s present rulers seek to rule without that consent. And even if they interpreted the widespread calls for Morsi to step down as a form of consent, their subsequent actions, which included the arrest of Mohammad Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, send mixed messages at best.

There is, I hasten to say, nothing insidious about understanding other nations through the lens of values that reflect American views of public justice. It is not necessary to try to expunge the American narrative of revolution. What is necessary is that we leaven it with a healthy dose of prudence, because what is at stake is policy, potentially costly in lives and resources, and hard to reverse once commitments are made. We need the whole picture before we act.

There is no shortcut, moral or otherwise, to the right course for the United States to take in Egypt. The Obama administration should certainly use all its diplomatic muscle to persuade both sides to step back from violent confrontation and it should insist on a holistic account of recent developments. It should state as its goal the resumption of the democratic process and should link elements of assistance to progress towards it. In the end, however, only the Egyptians can make the decisions necessary to reach these goals. Recognizing this is a nod to self-determination, the most important of American political values.

- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. 

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