David vs. David

Crisis in Egypt: Only the military can prevent another Iran-like Islamic state

It is a lot easier to view with alarm and demand draconian action when one has neither background nor perspective.

Thus it is unpopular, but vitally necessary, to do some truth-telling about the Egyptian military and the current chaos in Egypt. Dead bodies make great visuals but are hardly full disclosure.

Essentially, the choice is not between heavy-handed military autocrats and a benign, albeit befuddled, Islamic parliamentary democracy. It is a choice between tough military dictatorship and an Islamic fundamentalist regime impossible, short of military invasion, to unseat should it gain control.

Westerners in general and Americans in particular sympathize with the underdog. We never contemplate that the underdog can be just as mean and vicious as the top dog — just momentarily subordinate. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its allies may be underdogs but they are conducting ethnic cleansing pogroms against non-Muslims, particularly Christians, that demonstrate their proclivities. Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, documented the recent burning/destruction of 58 churches and many other Christian facilities. Particularly pitiful was the cancellation of Sunday prayers for the first time in 1,600 years at the Orthodox Monastery of the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram in Degla, south of Minya. And Christians were present in Egypt for centuries prior to Islam’s arrival.

A Muslim Brotherhood/Islamic-dominated Egyptian government would stimulate a massive exodus of Christians, far exceeding terrorist expulsion of Christians from other Middle East states. And who would be willing to mount a “crusade” to save them? At 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million population, it would constitute a massive refugee problem dwarfing other regional refugee disasters.

Indeed, the Egyptian military is the only remaining force capable of preventing emergence of an Islamic state on the level of vicious theocratic repression epitomized by Iran. The United States and the West failed to prevent a thuggish theocracy from seizing control of Tehran in 1979, slaughtering the senior military and bureaucracy, driving Iran’s upper/middle class into exile, implementing a mindlessly brutal Islamic/Sharia state, and moving steadily toward creating nuclear weapons. This failure was “our bad,” but Iran was something of an outlier state, not intimately a Middle East member.

Not so Egypt.

Egypt is the hub of the Middle East; its 1979 “Camp David” peace agreement with Israel assured there would be no united Arab war against Israel. Despite the frigid nature of their bilateral “cold peace,” it has endured for almost 35 years. And U.S. military assistance to Egypt — against which so many are inveighing complemented by current reports President Obama has suspended it — was the U.S. bribe to assure this peace. It is, incidentally, an agreement a Muslim Brotherhood-Islamic Egyptian government is unlikely to retain.

Conversely, other regional players (Saudi, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates) are placing their markers. Reportedly, they have committed $12 billion (far dwarfing the US $1.5 billion in aid) to replace aid suspended by other donors.

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It is not that we haven’t seen armed forces reverse a democratic election. Now almost forgotten is the Algerian scenario of the 1990s. In December 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of elections and was poised to win the second round and install an Islamic government. Disconcerted by the possibility of Islamic control, the government cancelled elections and the military seized power. Banned, the FIS openly fought the government in both cities and countryside. An implacable civil war resulted, lasting a decade, and marked by mutual atrocity. Eventually, the armed forces ground the rebellion into submission with a death toll between 44,000-150,000 (in short, nobody really knows).

The past is not precedent, but Egypt could go in the same bloody direction.

  • The Egyptian military at 400,000 is the region’s largest, well-armed and reasonably trained;
  • It has already demonstrated willingness to fire on fellow citizens and spent much of the past year engaging in riot control;
  • Armed forces leadership may well have concluded the Mohamed Morsi presidency was seeking to emasculate it; ultimately, given the Iranian example in 1979, Egyptian senior officers may have felt the execution wall at their backs;
  • Muslim Brotherhood and allies are well familiar with life “underground,” having been banned for a generation prior to the Arab Spring. They know how to survive under official repression.

There are no Western-style democracies in the region. Even much-touted Israel tends to be governed by former military/security leaders (some say Israel is an army with a state).

Our baying at Egyptian military to adopt League of Women Voters tactics is feckless.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.

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