In the near term, bet on the men with the guns.
The Egyptian army, being slowly squeezed out of its central role in the nation’s life by Mohamed Morsi, waited for the moment to oust the elected president and crush his Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was deposed and arrested and the Brotherhood leaders rounded up and jailed. Their Cairo encampments were cleansed by gunfire. Hundreds of brothers were cut down and killed, and thousands wounded.
Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, gazing into his mirror, must see Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser gazing back.
In the near term, the Brotherhood is in disarray. It backed the Arab Spring, heeded America’s call for free elections and won parliament and the presidency, only to have the army, with America’s backing, overthrow its Islamist government in a military coup.
If the Brotherhood feels betrayed, if it believes its sons who opposed the coup died as martyrs, if it has concluded that the Americans, with their endless blather about democracy, are duplicitous hypocrites, are they entirely wrong?
In the short term, America must get on with the generals.
For it is they who bottle up Hamas in Gaza, battle al-Qaida in Sinai, protect the Christian Copts, grant our Air Force overflight rights and our Navy first-in-line transit rights through the Suez Canal. And it is the generals who continue to honor the terms of the Camp David accords.
Understandably, Israeli diplomats are imploring us, the slaughter aside, not to cut our ties to the Egyptian military. Yet it is hard to believe the long-term future belongs to the generals.
Looking back, of all the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, the Facebook-Twitter crowd calling for secular democracy harvested the greatest publicity. But even then, other forces seemed to have deeper and broader roots in the hearts and minds of the masses.
Those forces: tribalism, nationalism and Islamism.
The generals may work hand-in-glove with the Israelis. But anti-Zionism remains one of the few rallying cries that can unite secularist and Islamist, Sunni and Shia.
And as the Jews have been expelled from the Arab world, today it is the turn of the Christians. They have seen priests murdered, churches torched and congregations massacred in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and beyond, in Ethiopia and Nigeria – by extremists who cite the Quran for what they are doing. And after the Jews and Christians are gone, it is likely to be the turn of the Americans.
Why? First, the Americans are seen as standing behind Israel’s regional superiority and dominance of the Palestinian Arabs.
Second, while we defend our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as liberations from dictatorship and obscurantism, they are seen over there as America using her power to impose upon these nations our institutions and our ideology. And while America’s achievements may inspire awe, America’s culture, suffused with feminist and Hollywood values, evokes revulsion.
Millions of Muslims are willing to die to keep America and American values out of their societies. How many Americans are willing to fight and die over there to force them on Arab peoples?
Third, there is a growing confidence in the Islamic world that the future belongs to them. Whence comes this confidence?
Western peoples are dying, as Muslim populations are exploding and Muslim migrants are pouring into Europe and the United States. While Islam is booming in the East and being welcomed in the West, Christianity is dying in the West and being expelled from the East.
It is not unreasonable for Muslim visionaries to see the next 500 years as an era of Islamic ascendancy, as the last 500 saw a Western ascendancy.
Fourth, while Egypt’s army has the guns and, temporarily, the banner of patriotism, it has no faith, no philosophy, no ideology to justify an indefinite hold on power. When, like Hosni Mubarak, this generation of generals is seen as incompetent and repressive, upon what do they fall back to justify their legitimacy to the next crowd in Tahrir Square?
Indeed, this is America’s dilemma. When Japan attacked and Adolf Hitler declared war, and when Josef Stalin set out to dominate the world, all we held dear – faith, family, freedom, country – said resist. When Osama bin Laden took down our towers, we united to take down him and al-Qaida.
Millions of Muslims are willing to fight to drive us out of their part of the world. How many Americans are willing to send our sons to die for secular democracy and American values in their part of the world?
After World War II, when communists captured the banner of nationalism, they were on the move in China, Vietnam, Cuba. When Ronald Reagan recaptured the banners of nationalism in Angola, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, suddenly it was the communists on the run.
Ethnonationalism and religious fundamentalism tore apart the British, French and Soviet empires. All are working now against the U.S. Imperium. The generals in Egypt won this round. But is there any doubt as to which way the wind is blowing?