(RNS) Egypt now teeters on the edge of an abyss. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was in Cairo last week at President Obama’s request to mediate between the military-backed interim government and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, told CBS News: “Oh my God, I didn’t know it was this bad. These folks are just days or weeks away from all-out bloodshed.”
The widely anticipated military crackdown against pro-Morsi demonstrators began yesterday (Aug. 15), so we’d better brace for the blow-back.
The rising specter of repression in Egypt is difficult to watch for two reasons. First, it confirms that the counterrevolution is successfully restoring the deep state — the vast security apparatus upon which military autocracy in Egypt has been based since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in the 1950s, effectively extinguishing any hope of transition to democracy. Second, the violent crackdown evokes bad memories of earlier efforts by Egypt’s military strongmen to crush their Islamist opposition.
In regular 20-year cycles, starting with Nasser in the 1950s, the Egyptian military regime has launched brutal campaigns of repression against its Islamist opponents. Although each of those previous suppression efforts succeeded in eliminating the immediate challenge to military rule, they never addressed the root causes of the problem.
Because Egypt has served as the global epicenter of political Islam for close to a century now, what happens there has enormous repercussions worldwide, especially for the United States.
The repression of the late 1950s led to the radical theories of Sayyid Qutb, which still inspire Islamist extremists from Aceh in Indonesia to Timbuktu in Mali. The campaign of the 1970s prompted only increasingly fanatical and violent expressions of Islamist extremism, culminating in the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.
The 1990s campaign of repression by Egyptian security services convinced Islamist extremists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born leader of al Qaeda, that to succeed in Egypt they must first strike “the far enemy,” the United States, upon whose support, they reasoned, the Egyptian military autocracy relied.
History suggests that when Egypt’s military suppresses its Islamist opponents, it has serious repercussions for the United States.
And on Sept. 11, 2001, it was an Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, signaling the start of the 9/11 attacks.
Already last week, 19 U.S. embassies and consulates were shuttered as Zawahiri sought to underscore with a spectacular new terrorist attack his argument to mainline Islamist sentiment around the world that the overthrow of Morsi demonstrates the futility of democracy.
With the United States serving as the main supplier of the Egyptian military, it should not surprise Americans that we are held responsible for what the Egyptian military does. Our government’s official silence on whether or not Morsi was overthrown by an obvious military coup is not helpful because it conveys hypocrisy and complicity.
We need to be absolutely clear with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi that, contrary to the conventional wisdom in Cairo, brutal suppression of the Islamist opposition does not work in the long term — it only breeds increasingly violent extremism.
What does work is inclusive democracy. Nothing was more effective in undermining the credibility and attraction of Islamism in Egypt than the pathetic failed experiment with actual Muslim Brotherhood rule.
There can be little doubt that U.S.-Egyptian relations will be rocky in the near future no matter what we do, but if we don’t stand decisively for democracy now, the long-term horizon will be even worse. We must be firm with the generals who are busy re-establishing their control that the only effective antidote to Islamism is democracy and a sustained effort to address the real grievances that give rise to the Islamist opposition in the first place.
This will be a hard sell, but history shows that when the generals in Cairo decide repression in is the only solution to their Islamist problem, the rest of us should brace for the global blowback.
(Christopher S. Taylor is professor of Middle East Studies and comparative religion at Drew University where he directs the Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict. He wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)