Editorial: West must help Egypt to restore democracy

Only now, as the death toll mounts, are appropriate condemnatory words coming from the West. Photo / AP
Only now, as the death toll mounts, are appropriate condemnatory words coming from the West. Photo / AP

As unpalatable as the prospect was for the West, the Arab Spring was always likely to lead to Islamic governments. It happened in Egypt a year ago when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was elected President by a narrow margin. The West grudgingly accepted this as the legitimate verdict of the Egyptian people.

Logically, it should, therefore, have responded critically and decisively to the deposing last month of the Morsi Government by a military coup.

Instead, its thinking has been muddled, and it has stood by while the hopes for a democratic Egypt disappear amid violence and bloodshed.

It was probably expecting too much for Egypt to instantly create a flourishing democracy after so many years of dictatorship and military rule. Hands were always likely to be overplayed. In that regard, no party to the present crisis is blameless. Mr Morsi, the head of a long-outlawed organisation, sought to make the most of his success by pursuing the Brotherhood's own interests, notably through a constitution that would have implanted a strict Islamist state.

His disdain for pluralism alienated the liberal and secular youth groups who had led the protests against the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square, paving the way for his election triumph. These groups, in turn, paid little heed to the legitimacy of Mr Morsi's government when they again took to the streets. And they provided the catalyst for intervention by military leaders, with whom Mr Morsi had also, fatally, fallen out. For the past few decades, Egyptian politics have been dominated by the struggle between the army and the Brotherhood. The former had no qualms about mounting a coup, and after days of violent chaos is now talking of banning the Brotherhood.

The army believes it can eliminate the group from Egyptian politics. It is wrong. Through eight decades of persecution, the Brotherhood has proved itself well organised, disciplined and resilient. It is well entrenched in Egyptian life and will re-emerge in some shape or form. So will the democratic impulse in Egypt. Whatever the military does, the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back.

The West's only tenable response is to demand the return of democracy, using whatever muscle it has. But its reaction so far has been tepid. The White House has cancelled a joint United States-Egypt military exercise, but has declined even to describe the military's action as a "coup". Using that wholly accurate description would lead Washington to stop sending an annual US$1.3 billion in aid direct to the Egyptian military. It worries that conservative monarchies in the region, notably that of Saudi Arabia, would merely step into the breach, lessening US influence. But that is hardly a valid reason for essentially standing by as the military seeks to stamp out a democratically elected party.

Only now, as the death toll mounts, are appropriate condemnatory words coming from the West. The European Union has said the killings "could not be condoned" and indicated it would review its relations with Egypt. This could lead to the suspension of financial aid, which is much needed because of the Morsi Government's inability to improve the country's dire economy.

Such action must be taken in the interests of accelerating the withdrawal of the army from politics and the restoration of democracy.

Military rule might, in many ways, be a more comfortable prospect for the West than an Islamic government. That, however, is not a sustainable position. Egyptian political leaders of all stripes will have learned harsh lessons from the country's first brief spell of democracy.

The West must not be afraid to help give them a second chance.

- NZ Herald

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