In every civil war, there is a moment before all hell breaks loose when there is still a chance to prevent a total descent into the abyss. Egypt is at that moment.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts this week, and it can’t come too soon. One can only hope that the traditional time for getting family and friends together will provide a moment for all the actors in Egypt to reflect on how badly they’ve behaved — all sides — and opt for the only sensible pathway forward: national reconciliation.
I was a student at the American University in Cairo in the early 1970s and have been a regular visitor since. I’ve never witnessed the depth of hatred that has infected Egypt in recent months: Muslim Brotherhood activists throwing a young opponent off a roof; anti-Islamist activists on Twitter praising the Egyptian army for mercilessly gunning down supporters of the Brotherhood in prayer.
In the wake of all this violent turmoil, it is no longer who rules Egypt that it is at stake. It is Egypt that is at stake. This is an existential crisis.
Can Egypt hold together and move forward as a unified country or will it be torn asunder by its own people, like Syria? Nothing is more important in the Middle East today, because when the stability of modern Egypt is at stake — sitting as it does astride the Suez Canal, the linchpin of any Arab peace with Israel and knitting together North Africa, Africa and the Middle East — the stability of the whole region is at stake.
I appreciate the anger of non-Islamist, secular and liberal Egyptians with President Mohammed Morsi. He never would have become president without their votes, but, once in office, instead of being inclusive, at every turn he grabbed for more power. With Egypt’s economy in a tailspin, I also appreciate the impatience of many Egyptians with Morsi’s rule. But in the Arab world’s long transition to democracy, something valuable was lost when the military ousted Morsi’s government and did not wait for the Egyptian people to do it in October’s parliamentary elections or the presidential elections three years down the road. It gives the Muslim Brothers a perfect excuse not to reflect on their mistakes and change, which is an essential ingredient for Egypt to build a stable political center.
But Egypt’s non-Islamists, secular and liberal groups need to get their act together, too. The Egyptian opposition has been great at mobilizing protests but incapable of coalescing around a single leader’s agenda, while the Brotherhood has been great at winning elections but incapable of governing.
So now there is only one way for Egypt to avoid the abyss: The military, the only authority in Egypt today, has to make clear that it ousted the Muslim Brotherhood for the purpose of a “reset,” not for the purposes of “revenge” — for the purpose of starting over and getting the transition to democracy right this time, not for the purpose of eliminating the Brotherhood from politics.
It is not clear that the “interim constitution” issued Tuesday by Egypt’s transitional government will give the Brotherhood a fair shot at contesting power. It bans parties based on religion, but that ban was in place under Hosni Mubarak, and the Brotherhood got around it by running as independents. Egypt will not be stable if the Brotherhood is excluded.
Dalia Mogahed, the CEO of Mogahed Consulting and a longtime pollster in the Middle East, remarked to me that the original 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak was mounted by “young people, leftists, liberals, Islamists, united for a better future. The division was between those revolutionaries and the status quo. The revolution wasn’t owned by the secularists or the liberals or the Islamists. That’s why it worked.” Democracy in Egypt “only has a chance when revolutionaries again see the status quo as their enemy, not each other.”
She is right: Muslim Brothers can kill more secularists; the military can kill more Muslim Brothers; but another decade of the status quo in Egypt will kill them all. The country will be a human development disaster. With the absence of a true party of reform — that blends respect for religion with a strategy of modernization as the great 19th-century Egyptian reformers did — Egyptians today are being forced to choose not a better way, but between bad ideas.
The Brotherhood posits that “Islam is the answer.” The military favors a return to the deep state of old. But more religion alone is not the answer for Egypt today and while the military-dominated deep state might provide law and order and keep Islamists down, it can’t provide the kind of fresh thinking and educational, entrepreneurial, social and legal reforms needed to empower and unleash Egypt’s considerable human talent and brainpower.
In truth, the 2002 U.N. Arab Human Development Report is the answer, which, by the way, was mostly written by Egyptian scholars. It called on Egyptians to focus on building a politics that can overcome their debilitating deficits of freedom, education and women’s empowerment.
That is the pathway Egypt needs to pursue — not Mubarakism, Morsi-ism or military rule — and the job of Egypt’s friends now is not to cut off aid and censure, but to help it gradually but steadily find that moderate path.Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.