The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions, and nowhere is this more true than in our attitude towards Egypt, a country racked by a never-ending cycle of revolution, repression, and civil war.
At the start of the so-called Arab Spring, America rallied behind the protesters, providing moral support to the just cause of revolution against the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. It made sense, but it was an immature knee-jerk reaction to a complicated dynamic that we made no effort to really understand. Assuming erroneously that revolution is always a good thing, and biased by our innate preference for democracy, we championed the downfall of Mubarak's government in favor of a new regime that would represent the Egyptian people.
The only problem is that Egypt, much like Libya, and probably even Syria, is not even remotely ready for democracy. Not only do those nations lack the economic, educational, civic, and political institutions to support democracy, but they are besieged by fundamentalists, terrorists, and military power-mongers who are just waiting to step into the void created by a revolution. In the case of Egypt, it has already happened twice, and by the looks of it, will happen again.
Democracy is a great thing but the economic and political reality of the Middle East is vastly different from that of the West, and times have changed dramatically since the birth of the American nation. In the modern world, no nation can simply jump from dictatorship to democracy in a single, passionate step -- no matter how bold and visionary that step is. The path to democracy today requires the gradual reformation of institutions in a way that does not destroy a nation's ability to sustain itself economically, and in a land like Egypt, that can prevent extremist elements from hijacking the democratic process.
Today it takes time, forethought, careful planning, and patience, not frenetic Facebook and Twitter campaigns and mass protests, to bring about lasting change.
And that is a fact that the Middle East has failed to understand, and so have we. The people of the Arab world might be responsible for their own fate, but we are certainly responsible for helping them along by encouraging a spirit of reckless revolution and a faster pace of change than they can handle. We believe so strongly in democracy that we tend to ignore the historical, economic, religious, cultural, and political dynamics of other parts of the world, and wind up giving bad advice.
Given that, what is happening in Egypt now should not really surprise us. I hate to say it but it was inevitable from the moment that the Arab Spring began. It was a revolution without a real plan for the aftermath, and so it backfired. The sad part, of course, is that the Egyptian people, who were oppressed for so long, continue to be oppressed today and have inadvertently replaced a devil that they knew with one that is quite possibly worse.
At this point, if we really want to help the Egyptians achieve democracy, then we need to work with the regime currently in power (no matter how distasteful that is to us) to first help Egypt:
- Strengthen its economy and develop its infrastructure.
- Improve the education of its citizens.
- Nullify the influence of Islamist fanatics.
- Gradually reform political institutions to be more democratic, AND
- Slow down the process so that it can be controlled.
Right now, Egypt is like a car hurtling at a 100 miles per hour on the wrong road, but before it can get on the right track, the nation needs to slow down and consider where it is going. The Egyptians deserve liberty, but they will not get it overnight and they certainly will not get it through yet another revolution.
And from our side, we need to stop indulging our belief in democracy-out-of-a-can and focus instead on long-term solutions for Egypt. Otherwise the bloodshed will continue, and the only thing we will have to show for our good intentions will be some high-minded rhetoric in the press and by our leaders supporting a process that is destined to fail.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He has worked at leading investment banks and hedge funds, has appeared on CNBC's 'Closing Bell' and HuffPost Live on business topics, and is the author of two thriller novels, including "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit www.sanghoee.com