Well, he had to say something. In response to Egypt, the Foreign Secretary could hardly answer “No comment”. Still less could he tell the truth, which would have gone as follows: “I do not know what is happening in Egypt, and even if I did, there would be precious little that I could do about it.” So William Hague appealed for restraint. Whatever restraints the demands of office impose upon him, Mr Hague is not naive. He knows how likely it is that anyone will heed his words.
It is all very sad. A couple of years ago, many of us were ready to risk naivety and indulge in hope. We knew that the jeunesse dorée of Tahrir Square were merely a meniscus on the unplumbed well of Egyptian society. We were aware that the Muslim Brotherhood had been founded in Egypt, and had never been crushed. But one of the wisest Arabists I know gave a cynic’s justification for cautious optimism, in Egypt as in Libya. “These are not the warrior poets who rode out of Arabia on camels, to conquer half the known world. They are altogether more pliant.”
That did not sound implausible. Moreover, repressive regimes are always good at crushing moderate opposition. The extremists, harder to deal with, may find themselves sweeping up supporters who are open to reason. So it was possible that, despite their Islamo-fascist rhetoric, some of the Muslim brothers would not be as implacable as they sounded. In Turkey, an Islamic government has shown some awareness of the realities of governing a large and complex country. Maybe the Egyptian brothers would follow that example.
The early signs were not encouraging, so was the military justified in overthrowing Mohamed Morsi? We will be arguing about that for years to come. For many people, there can be no argument: Mr Morsi won an election, and that is that. Did they but know it, those who argue in this way are under the influence of neoconservatism. The neocons believe that democracy is political penicillin: infallible and universally applicable. Palaeo-conservatives are more sceptical, and wiser. They do not accept that vox populi is necessarily vox dei. Democracy is not an instant miracle cure. It requires a long incubation in the soil of an appropriate national culture.
Hitler won an election. In late 1940, Petain would have walked an election. In the ealy 1990s, Islamist parties won an election in Algeria. The generals nullified it. There followed some years of brutal conflict, with heavy casualties. Not all of them died quickly. It was a horrible interlude, and a successful one. Algeria today is increasingly prosperous and relatively stable, offering the hope of free institutions and the rule of law. But that was only possible because Islamic politicians had their throats cut.
The Algerian generals had an obvious excuse. Those supposed democrats were interested in fighting only one election. They had no intention of making a habit of it. One man, one vote, one time. Any future elections would have been run on Robert Mugabe lines. That is why it was right to overthrow the Allende regime, and the Spanish government in 1936. We can regret the German generals’ failure to do the same to Hitler, but there would have been a crucial difference, which probably made that impossible. He had much deeper roots in popularity; in Germany, the vox populi was gravely out of order.
Egypt: we do not know. There is one obvious consequence of the coup: embitterment. If the Brothers are given another chance, there will be little prospect of winning them over. They will want revenge. They will also want to destroy all those aspects of Egyptian society that might hold out against them. They may not turn into warrior-poets; there is unlikely to be much poetry. War, yes – and after all, how many people predicted that the Shah’s Iran would be replaced by a brutal theocracy?
As the Egyptian generals are so far in blood that returning were as tedious as go o’er, their consolidation in power might be the least bad alternative (even if that was not true of Macbeth). If so, we should help them to do better. The economist Hernando de Soto has pointed out that in poor counties, many families live in shanty dwellings on slum land, to which no one has any title. So: give the slum-dwellers the title deeds, while encouraging micro-banking. Tiny loans could enable the poor of Egypt to provide themselves with a concrete floor. That would help the concrete factory. Once the small wheels start turning, they can move the larger ones. “Egyptian economy” might gradually cease to be an oxymoron.
Vulgar Marxism, though a slightly more reliable guide to human affairs than neoconservatism, is not infallible. Just because a population is somewhat better off, it does not automatically become more docile. That said, the price of bread had far more to do with the Arab Spring than any sudden dissemination of The Federalist Papers. As long as tens of millions of Egyptians are struggling for subsistence along the banks of the Nile, barely better off in real terms than they would have been under the Rameses pharaohs, Egypt will be in peril. If there are no prospects in this world, the martyr’s road to paradise will gain in attraction.
We in the West do not know how to respond to Islam. That is hardly surprising. Nor do most Muslims. There are two obvious points. First, it is impossible to generalise about societies that stretch from Morocco to Malaysia. One is tempted to paraphrase Manmohan Singh’s comment on India. “Every cliché about India is true. So is the opposite.” Second, despite the vast spaces and the national differences, it may be that something is stirring in Islam, as it did in European Christianity after 1517. For the rest of that century and most of the next one, almost all the wars had a confessional dimension, and there were plenty of wars.
There are two further related points. First, as a theology, Islam is inherently theocratic. There is no concept of the secular. This does not mean – thank goodness – that all Muslims live up to their faith’s austere demands. But it is a difficulty. Second, the recent history of Islamic societies has been one of failure. Richard Dawkins has pointed out one aspect of this: the poverty of Nobel prizes. Islam has scaled the mountain peaks of civilisation: the Muslim courts of Andalucia and the glories of Mughal culture are two obvious examples – and algebra is an Arabic word. But that was all a long time ago. It cannot be easy to inspire young Muslims with contemporary intellectual heroes: one suspects that there are a lot of Mary Seacole equivalents. This creates a vacuum that fanatical mullahs are happy to fill.
So what can the West do, apart from pray? That is not a wholly frivolous suggestion; however many wise policies our diplomats can suggest, we are also going to require luck. There needs to be as much constructive engagement as possible with Islamic counties, including the use of foreign aid to assist sensible development along De Soto lines.
But we do not know what is going to happen in Syria, or in Iraq. Libya may be a success; with all the oil and other wealth, that would be hardly surprising. Anyway, Libya is not of the highest strategic importance, unlike Egypt.
So were the Egyptian generals right or wrong to act as they did? The answer is “Yes” – but we do not know which.