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Egypt’s ‘economic woes’ distract from religious extremist reality

Tags: Israel Comment
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Seth J. Frantzman

As the one-year anniversary of Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising came and went, many commentators felt obliged to wax positive about the revolution in the country. The analysts didn’t want to appear to be cynical on hopes that Egypt will emerge as a wonderful beacon of democracy in the Middle East. But in order to keep up the optimism, everyone must keep making excuses for the reality.

A New York Times editorial on Jan. 21 claimed that “Worsening economic conditions are further sabotaging hopes for a democratic future” in Cairo. “The United States, the European Union and the gulf states last year promised billions of dollars in assistance to Egypt…those countries should move quickly on their commitments, including offers to begin free-trade talks with Egypt…That’s a goal worth working toward.” 

The notion here is that a bad economy could push Egypt into chaos or totalitarianism. Everyone knows that it was terrible economic climates that gave rise to Communism and Fascism. Thus, in order to prevent radicalism, the West must throw money at Egypt—beyond the largesse that America already extends to the country. Currently, U.S military aid comes to over $1 billion and U.S development aid has totaled $28 billion since 1975. 

On Jan. 25, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz was more apocalyptic in its description of what might happen if the West doesn’t step in to save Egypt’s economy, writing in an editorial: “It’s a democracy in need of help, both financial and diplomatic. Without investment and direct assistance, it will be difficult for this democracy to feed Egypt’s 85 million people.”

What is interesting about these editorials is that they were written within days of a Muslim Brotherhood member being elected speaker of Egypt’s Parliament. Where these writers are correct is in their analysis that this is indeed democracy. But why does this democracy deserve a blank check from the West for support?

In Europe, when Austria elected Jorg Haider, and when Hungary more recently elected the right-wing Fidesz party, the West sought to put up a cordon sanitaire around these democratic regimes because the West disagrees with their right-wing ideology. Thus, the West expressed displeasure. 

It isn’t just democracy for democracy’s sake. After all, the savage Hobbesian world envisioned in Lord of the Flies was a democracy, it was just a bad one that didn’t protect minority rights and was riven with extremism. Egypt’s democracy is similar. Egypt has elected an extremist parliament that is dominated by a hard-right religious party and is outflanked by an even more extreme Salafist party. The secular liberals that are similar to typical democratic parties in the West are a small minority. 

Consider how the opposite message is relayed about Israel. The perception that Israel is tilting to the right by electing Yisrael Beiteinu, and that it is becoming more religious, are held up as reasons why the U.S. and Europe must put pressure on Israel. Thus, when Israel is said to be persecuting NGOs, it is argued that progressives must not support Israel. But when Egypt raids the offices of NGOs, as was done recently, we are asked to give more financial assistance.  American politicians who rightly say that aid should be in jeopardy are accused of harming Egypt, and it is even implied they may be responsible for the country lurching into famine.      

So why is Egypt different? Part of the reason is the typical double standard for countries in the “south” or third world. Less is expected of them, and therefore the standards that a democracy such as Austria are held to do not apply. But another hand is at work, one that needs to find an excuse for the impending failure of Egyptian democracy and the country’s decline into totalitarianism, extremism or chaos. Many voices want to set up others to be at fault, so that it can be said that because America didn’t aid Egypt, Egyptian democracy failed. 

Unfortunately, the West has no coherent policy in terms of democracy promotion.  One overarching argument is that democracy for democracy’s sake is important. But the advocates of that view are often dismayed by the fact that democracy results in the election of radicals.  Then, the advocates change their tune and say that the Islamists who are elected are actually moderates, which is what has transpired in discussions about Tunisia and Egypt. 

There is, of course, an arguable hypocrisy inherent in saying “be democratic” and then not supporting the results. A coherent policy would argue for the promotion of an American or liberal democratic reform based on enacting a type of Bill of Rights as part of championing elections. Students of the American Constitution will understand the importance of this. The Founding Fathers of the U.S. created a Constitution that ensured checks and balances, but they also put in place a Bill of Rights, to protect against the evils of majoritarian democracy—the “tyranny of the masses,” as it were. 

Where democracy has failed, it has failed because of the lack of checks and balances.  Scaremongering about economic aid is not part of a coherent policy. It is just an excuse.

Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.

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