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Latest reporting characterizes Egypt as tense amidst the results of its first democratic elections for president. The prospect of a peaceful vote has been invigorating; however, the prospect entails choosing between an Islamist and a former regime loyalist. The apprehension is not limited to Egypt alone. This juncture of the Arab Spring is being closely -- and nervously -- monitored throughout the Middle East. A victory for Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to ousted President Hosni Mubarak, could temper optimism about the region’s liberal potential, but it would reassure nervous neighbors. A win by Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, would underscore the opportunity for fledgling electoral parties to oust entrenched establishments, but it would upend the region’s volatile dynamics. Given the evident polarization, and already significant regional upheaval, the potential for internal instability (and outside intervention) exists.
Iraqi Civil War Redux?
In early 2006, when Iraqi Sunni extremists bombed the Shiite mosque in Somarra, the attack sparked a vicious sectarian civil war between the various indigenous groups. Adding to the tragedy, Iraq became a proxy battleground for external powers and movements, akin to the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. A simmering cold war heated up between Sunni Arab powers, arraigned behind Saudi Arabia, faced off against Shiite Persian Iran in Iraq, and funneled resources and fighters into the country. The conflict persisted for two years until the United States surged military forces into Baghdad and Sunni tribes turned on their extremist allies in the Anbar Province. (Iraq is generally stable and retains an elected government, but its future remains tentative as concerns mount over the direction of current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the nation’s relationship with Iran.)
Would an electoral outcome precipitate such a fate for Egypt? Probably not.
Present-day Iraq is the consequence of American arms and is a successor to Saddam Hussein’s Republic of Fear -- after thirty years of dictatorship and regime change at the hands of Western invasion, the probability for instability was much greater.
In contrast, Egypt is fairly homogeneous ethnically and religiously. Moreover, while a military dictatorship since 1952, Egyptians have not endured terrors like those the Hussein family inflicted on Iraqis. Lastly, modern Egypt remains the region’s preeminent state since Nasser; Tunisians may have opened the Arab Spring but Egypt has become its vanguard.
If either Shafiq or Morsi wins, Egyptians will endeavor to remain united and demonstrate the promise of the Arab Spring.
Whether apprehensive neighbors, especially those committed to winning this burgeoning cold war, will permit the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototype Islamist movement, to win is another matter.
The Prospects for Good Neighborliness...
In early 2011, the monarchy in Bahrain opposed the broader liberalization called for by Arab Spring protesters and instead chose to suppress them violently. After an additional month of protests the monarchy called in assistance from Gulf Cooperation Council allies. In March, forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain and helped the government dislodge protesters from the capital. The United States declared its support for the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and even military supported rebels in Libya, but declined to criticize the Bahraini monarchy. The reason for silence -- support for Saudi Arabia, which has become the anti-Shiite Islamist bulwark in the region.
Twenty years earlier, in December 1991, the military inAlgeria canceled a second round of voting after the Islamic Salvation Front received a larger than expected number of votes in the opening round of the country’s first multi-party elections in decades. The price was a vicious civil war lasting eight years and the lives of over 100,000 Algerians. The North African country had hardly been a paragon of democracy, but the nation had just voluntarily undertaken liberalization three years earlier and the Cold War would end that same month. Precluding the advance of an antagonistic ideology trumped honoring the integrity of the electoral process. In this instance, the justification (again) was opposition to Islamism.
...Are Daunting in Light of the Precedents
“Make the economy scream.”
President Richard Nixon’s now infamous directive to the Central Intelligence Activity set in motion America’s covert machinery to overthrow Latin America’s first democratically elected Communist government, that of Salvador Allende in Chile. America’s Soviet adversary in the Cold War had no such compunction, but the USSR was not championing democracy. America was, but during this period, many national leaders justified the subversion of popular governments -- and even legitimately elected ones -- on the basis of anti-communism.
Critics warned of blowback, but in this era of similarly simmering rivalries, apprehension over Islamism, and tentative liberalization, the greater peril is actually emulation.
America has since condemned its impulse to subvert, but its conduct provides a template for states wary of an Islamist triumph in Egypt. Conceiving of Saudi-led machinations to undermine the results of the June 16-17 runoffs favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood is not difficult.1 Nor is the radicalization and aggrandizement of the Muslim Brotherhood if former regime loyalists win, even if on fair terms.
In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet eventually relinquished power to a civilian government peacefully. His dictatorship remains controversial as his tenure marked the modernization of the economy, but at the expense of Chile’s proud democratic history.
Egyptians have only begun to forge a liberal future, but proceeding amidst such polarization, without the benefit of prior civil discourse, narrows the margin for error for American interests. The region’s future depends on breaking the cycle of dysfunction and intervention.
Cold wars unfortunately justify double standards and contravention of one’s own values, but no equivalent exemplar exists in the Middle East. Islamic Turkey is indeed a model secular democracy for the region but whether the nation is ready to assume the enormous costs associated with becoming a major benefactor is unknown. Moreover, any resources expended in Egypt would come at the expense of countering the more pressing challenge of countering an ascendant Iran.
The American public may be weary of upholding democracy abroad after a decade of arms establishing representative governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, but American leadership must be prepared for any and all contingencies that may occur and balance accordingly.
1 Alternatively, Saudi Arabia in collaboration with similarly inclined states, like Qatar, which contributed significantly (and unexpectedly) to operations in Libya. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union fashioned an communist “export” mechanism by coordinating security service and military force contributions, respectively, by East Germany and Cuba. A future counter-Shia Islamist arrangement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could follow.