POLITICS
07/05/2013 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2013

Who Should Stop Writing About Egypt Today?

AP

Here is some good news for The New York Times' David Brooks: He hasn't actually written the worst thing about the ongoing disorder in Egypt today.

Brooks escapes this distinction because most of what he's written, in defense of the coup in Egypt, actually makes a lot of sense ... up until it suddenly and without warning stops doing so. I have a feeling that this is all mostly accidental. Allow me to explain.

In his Friday piece, Brooks drills down on an obvious point -- the "process" that Egypt is going through is not yielding the outcome he wants (he defines "outcome" as "substance") -- and arrives at a rather startling, derogatory conclusion: Egyptians just lack the fundamental brainpower to have a democracy, saying, "It's not that Egypt doesn't have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients."

The way Brooks has bottom-lined this, however, doesn't seem to square with his actual argument on the distinctions between "process" and "substance." Here is how he draws those distinctions:

Those who emphasize process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup.

Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.

Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup.

So we have two choices. The "Process People" want whatever democratic stuff is going on in Egypt to play itself out in an orderly fashion, accepting the fact that you can't always get what you want -- a ruling group of elites who place competently running the nation ahead of their own weird, outsized ambitions and cultish rhetoric -- on the first go-round. The "Substance People" say that if the first go-round doesn't yield the favorable outcome, you Etch-a-Sketch that nonsense as quickly as possible and start over.

Brooks subsequently renders a decision on the matter of "Process People" versus "Substance People": "The substance people are right. Promoting elections is generally a good thing even when they produce victories for democratic forces we disagree with. But elections are not a good thing when they lead to the elevation of people whose substantive beliefs fall outside the democratic orbit."

And this is where the puzzlement comes into play.

Remember, this piece aims to defend the coup, and Brooks contends that the coup-methodology is "substance" and that "the substance people are right." So why then, if everything is actually proceeding more or less to his liking -- so much so that he's written in defense of it -- does he finally conclude that Egyptians "lack the basic mental ingredients" for democracy? It seems to be, if I'm being charitable, a rather uncharitable thing to say. (An observation worth noting, from Max Read: "Shall we note here, the day after Independence Day, that it took the United States of America 13 years after rejecting monarchy to settle on a stable constitutional form of government?")

This is where I start to have the funny feeling that this is all something of an accident. Brooks' line about mental deficiency is actually an echo of an earlier remark, which reads as follows:

Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.

Now, this might be somewhat unfair to "Islamists" writ large, but it's essentially a fitting criticism of the Morsi regime, which did take rather fervent and dramatic steps to "centralize power and undermine the democracy." I have a feeling that when Brooks arrives at the end of his piece and repeats this bit about "mental equipment" and "mental ingredients," he is still in his mind referring to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood clique, and not the entirety of Egyptians. Unfortunately, I am left having to practice divination here. What Brooks probably needs is an editor to shoot him the occasional email that reads, "Hey, did you actually mean to say what you said, here, at the end? Because it sort of undermines many of the preceding paragraphs."

Which leads me to another piece about Egypt that just goes terribly awry at the end: Friday's Wall Street Journal editorial, "After the Coup in Cairo." Therein, the Journal's editorial board contends that the "U.S. shouldn't cut off aid to a new Egyptian government." They rightly note that the "millions of Egyptians who took to the streets were also protesting chronic gas and food shortages and a sinking economy." Indeed, the economic misfortunes of Egypt are the primary driver of discontent in that region.

(By the way, if you happen to be wondering why the Obama administration is studiously avoiding referring to what is happening in Egypt as a "coup," it's because the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act "restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree." Thus, once the administration utters the magic word "coup," it becomes much harder to continue sending aid of any kind to Egypt.)

At any rate, the WSJ editorial is largely fair and uncontroversial: It defends the need to continue sending aid, expresses perfectly reasonable hopes and worries about the immediate future in Egypt, and generally keeps any alarmism in check. But then you get to the end, and ... I mean, wow, what the hell happened?

Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.

¡Ay, Dios mío! Everything had been proceeding so well until we get to the part where it's recommended that the next guy to run Egypt be "in the mold" of a charismatic, sociopathic murderer. It's worth pointing out that the head of state who best encapsulates la esencia de Pinochet in that region is our dear old friend, Bashar Assad of Syria, to whom the same editors refer as "rare and despicable" in calling for the United States to depose him by force.

Per The Wall Street Journal, then, we should end the state-sponsored slaughter of Syrians whilst hoping that Egyptians end up under the rule of a personage "in the mold of" a noted state sponsor of slaughter.

So, in conclusion, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal should stop writing about Egypt and The New York Times should get David Brooks some editorial assistance, the end.

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