Updated Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

When the Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship began to collapse two years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Reflections on the Potential Revolution in Egypt,” shamelessly copying Edmund Burke. I suggested that the rebellion could easily end up establishing a regime even worse than Mubarak’s was. Unfortunately, the new radical Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi did indeed end up surpassing its predecessor in repressiveness. After a series of protests by opposition movements that were met with additional repression, Morsy has apparently been overthrown in a military coup today.

It is hard to say whether the next government of Egypt will be better than Mubarak or Morsi. If it is dominated by the military, it could turn out to be an updated version of the Mubarak era. Some have been much more negative about Morsi’s overthrow than Mubarak’s, because the former was democratically elected. In my view, that is an overly simplistic position. Democracy is just one one of several attributes of a just government, and not necessarily the most important. As I discussed in this February post on the Egyptian protests, rule by military kleptocrats may be a lesser evil compared to rule by quasi-totalitarian radical Islamists who have no real intention of respecting the democratic process in the long run:

If Morsi continues to persecute his political opponents and establishes an Islamist dictatorship, his government might not be “up for re-election in a few years,” at least not a free election in which opposition parties are allowed to compete on equal terms. If Morsi is not overthrown now or at least forced to accept tight constraints on his authority, Egypt’s “democratic transition” could easily turn into a case of “one man, one vote, one time.”

Even if Morsi retains a relatively free democratic process, the illiberal nature of majority Egyptian opinion could still lead to severe oppression of women, liberals, religious minorities, and others…. A modestly repressive authoritarian regime might be a lesser evil compared to a democracy governed by a sufficiently oppressive illiberal majority…..

Egypt’s liberal democrats face a genuinely difficult dilemma…. If it were my choice, I would probably rather live under a junta of corrupt generals who are in it for money and power than under radical Islamists who want to force all of society to obey their version of Sharia law. The former might only impose enough repression to hold onto power and enrich themselves and their cronies. The Islamists, by contrast, might seek to impose brutal control over all aspects of society. Better to be ruled by crooks than quasi-totalitarian ideologues. But liberal Egyptians have to consider the relative likelihood of the two dangers as well as the relative severity. A high probability of moderately oppressive military government might be worse than a much lower probability of severely oppressive Islamist rule. Regardless, the right answer to the problem – assuming one even exists – can’t be determined simply by the fact that Morsy was democratically elected.

I’m far from being a Burkean conservative. But Burke’s concerns about the French Revolution are clearly relevant to today’s situation in Egypt, and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East.

UPDATE: I have vacillated between two spellings of the overthrown president’s name: “Morsi” (as used by the New York Times), and “Morsy” (as used by CNN, among others). For no particularly good reason, I’ve decided to use the former.

UPDATE #2: I have made some minor stylistic changes to this post.