June 30, 2013

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: A Light Fails In Egypt.

Is Egypt’s revolution falling apart? Clashes between anti-government protestors and Muslim Brotherhood supporters turned deadly yesterday, leaving at least three—including an American college student—dead. These clashes come ahead of massive country-wide demonstrations against President Morsi scheduled for Sunday. The NYT reports that on-the-ground forces are even speaking of a civil war. . . .

It’s hard for the American press to wrap its head around what’s happening in Egypt. The Western media instinctively wants to view the conflict as Islamists vs. secularists or liberals, with the future of democracy at stake. The reality is both darker and more complicated, but at best only a handful journalists have the intellectual chops to make sense of this picture, or the writing ability to help American readers understand a reality so different from our own experience here at home.

Had we pushed democratization back in 2004, when the U.S. had a lot of mana in the region, it might have gone better, but the Bush Administration unaccountably reversed course on that. Or, perhaps, they figured out what would happen and thought better of it, unlike Obama and his Cairo speech. I’ve faulted the Bush folks for their sudden and (to me) inexplicable abandonment of the mideast democracy-promotion agenda, but perhaps they knew more than I realized.

Plus, the wages of a higher education bubble:

Inexperienced 18 years olds who have grown up in corrupt, poorly governed societies, and been educated in trashy schools by incompetent hacks know very well that the status quo is unacceptable. Young people who know they are being ripped off and abused are typically not very patient. Throw in healthy doses of sexual frustration and contempt for an establishment that has lost confidence in its own capacity to lead, and you have a cocktail much more explosive than anything Molotov knew.

Egypt’s university system is particularly destructive. Year after year it turns out people with paper credentials, high expectations, and no real skills or understanding of how the world works. Those who manage to acquire real skills often go work in the Gulf, where Egyptian expats are able to have something approaching an effective professional career. But many Egyptian secondary school and university graduates end up in the worst of all possible worlds: too well-educated to accept the grinding poverty, soul-crushing drudgery and lack of status that so many jobs there entail, but not well-educated enough to build a better future for themselves or to organize effectively to remedy the ills of a society that creates such a dismal trap for youth.

Ugh. Good thing nothing like that could ever happen here.

UPDATE: Reader John Wake writes:

You wrote, “Had we pushed democratization back in 2004, when the U.S. had a lot of mana in the region, it might have gone better, but the Bush Administration unaccountably reversed course on that.”

The Bush Administration didn’t have the political capital to fight for democracy both in Iraq and in Egypt. If the Democrats had not damaged Bush so much over Iraq he may have had the political capital needed to push a messy democracy movement but it would have been very messy indeed and the Democrats would have blamed him for everything, single bad thing that would have happened along the way to democracy. If Bush had continued spending political capital on democratization in Egypt, he wouldn’t have had the political capital domestically to pull off The Surge in Iraq later.

Hmm. Could be.