Egypt and the Idealist-Realist Debate in U.S. Foreign Policy

By George Friedman

The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections has taken place, and the winners were two Islamist parties. The Islamists themselves are split between more extreme and more moderate factions, but it is clear that the secularists who dominated the demonstrations and who were the focus of the Arab Spring narrative made a poor showing. Of the three broad power blocs in Egypt - the military, the Islamists and the secular democrats - the last proved the weakest.

It is far from clear what will happen in Egypt now. The military remains unified and powerful, and it is unclear how much actual power it is prepared to cede or whether it will be forced to cede it. What is clear is that the faction championed by Western governments and the media will now have to accept the Islamist agenda, back the military or fade into irrelevance.

One of the points I made during the height of the Arab Spring was that the West should be careful of what it wishes for - it might get it. Democracy does not always bring secular democrats to power. To be more precise, democracy might yield a popular government, but the assumption that that government will support a liberal democratic constitution that conceives of human rights in the European or American sense is by no means certain. Unrest does not always lead to a revolution, a revolution does not always lead to a democracy, and a democracy does not always lead to a European- or American-style constitution.

In Egypt today, just as it is unclear whether the Egyptian military will cede power in any practical sense, it is also unclear whether the Islamists can form a coherent government or how extreme such a government might be. And as we analyze the possibilities, it is important to note that this analysis really isn't about Egypt. Rather, Egypt serves as a specimen to examine - a case study of an inherent contradiction in Western ideology and, ultimately, of an attempt to create a coherent foreign policy.

Core Beliefs

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Western countries, following the principles of the French Revolution, have two core beliefs. The first is the concept of national self-determination, the idea that all nations (and what the term "nation" means is complex in itself) have the right to determine for themselves the type of government they wish. The second is the idea of human rights, which are defined in several documents but are all built around the basic values of individual rights, particularly the right not only to participate in politics but also to be free in your private life from government intrusion.

The first principle leads to the idea of the democratic foundations of the state. The second leads to the idea that the state must be limited in its power in certain ways and the individual must be free to pursue his own life in his own way within a framework of law limited by the principles of liberal democracy. The core assumption within this is that a democratic polity will yield a liberal constitution. This assumes that the majority of the citizens, left to their own devices, will favor the Enlightenment's definition of human rights. This assumption is simple, but its application is tremendously complex. In the end, the premise of the Western project is that national self-determination, expressed through free elections, will create and sustain constitutional democracies.

It is interesting to note that human rights activists and neoconservatives, who on the surface are ideologically opposed, actually share this core belief. Both believe that democracy and human rights flow from the same source and that creating democratic regimes will create human rights. The neoconservatives believe outside military intervention might be an efficient agent for this. Human rights groups oppose this, preferring to organize and underwrite democratic movements and use measures such as sanctions and courts to compel oppressive regimes to cede power. But they share common ground on this point as well. Both groups believe that outside intervention is needed to facilitate the emergence of an oppressed public naturally inclined toward democracy and human rights.

This, then, yields a theory of foreign policy in which the underlying strategic principle must not only support existing constitutional democracies but also bring power to bear to weaken oppressive regimes and free the people to choose to build the kind of regimes that reflect the values of the European Enlightenment.

Complex Questions and Choices

The case of Egypt raises an interesting and obvious question regardless of how it all turns out. What if there are democratic elections and the people choose a regime that violates the principles of Western human rights? What happens if, after tremendous Western effort to force democratic elections, the electorate chooses to reject Western values and pursue a very different direction - for example, one that regards Western values as morally reprehensible and aims to make war against them? One obvious example of this is Adolph Hitler, whose ascent to power was fully in keeping with the processes of the Weimar Republic - a democratic regime - and whose clearly stated intention was to supersede that regime with one that was popular (there is little doubt that the Nazi regime had vast public support), opposed to constitutionalism in the democratic sense and hostile to constitutional democracy in other countries.

The idea that the destruction of repressive regimes opens the door for democratic elections that will not result in another repressive regime, at least by Western standards, assumes that all societies find Western values admirable and want to emulate them. This is sometimes the case, but the general assertion is a form of narcissism in the West that assumes that all reasonable people, freed from oppression, would wish to emulate us.

At this moment in history, the obvious counterargument rests in some, but not all, Islamist movements. We do not know that the Islamist groups in Egypt will be successful, and we do not know what ideologies they will pursue, but they are Islamists and their views of man and moral nature are different from those of the European Enlightenment. Islamists have a principled disagreement with the West on a wide range of issues, from the relation of the individual to the community to the distinction between the public and private sphere. They oppose the Egyptian military regime not only because it limits individual freedom but also because it violates their understanding of the regime's moral purpose. The Islamists have a different and superior view of moral political life, just as Western constitutional democracies see their own values as superior.

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Egypt and the Idealist-Realist Debate in U.S. Foreign Policy is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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