Reopening the Middle East Pandora's Box

The strongmen are back.

The crackdown on Egyptian protest camps by the security forces which began Wednesday was grimly predictable. What was not predictable was either its ferocity or the fact that the political and constitutional process which the West had initially encouraged would reach its definitive end to the sound of almost deafening silence from western capitals. The tame response from the European Union and the United States to what is now the third large massacre carried out by the new Egyptian government since the coup shows that Western leaders are betting on the military regime as the best chance to return stability to Egypt, even if it is a stability drenched in blood.

These bloody events mark full circle for the Muslim Brotherhood, and for Egypt itself. Having emerged from the shadows and participated in a peaceful political process, which saw it receive over 37 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections and its candidate attain over 50 percent of the vote in presidential elections, the Brotherhood now finds the full weight of Egypt's deep state deployed against it once more.

After its recent coup was met with a refusal by the Muslim Brotherhood to give up the spoils of power, the Egyptian military responded with the old tools it knows so well—putting its own men in charge of provincial government across the country, launching a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood, and declaring a state of emergency. It can hardly give comfort to opponents of the military regime to ponder that the country's last state of emergency lasted for most of forty-five years.

For Western governments, these events force an agonizing reappraisal, and their response shows that what is happening in Egypt may mark a return to the Middle East's old order. For decades, Western governments—and Israel—enjoyed close relations with Arab governments, which were repressive at home but avoided destabilizing international actions. The Egyptian military has been a close partner of the United States and has observed a peace treaty with Israel for decades. Similarly, there are few Western diplomats who would not agree that in retrospect Syria was a rose garden under Bashar al-Assad compared to the regional destabilization caused by the Syrian civil war.

The utility of Middle Eastern strongmen to keep the peace in a turbulent region at a time of Western defense cutbacks is obvious, and explains why the Obama administration was forced into such rhetorical gymnastics to avoid describing the July coup in Egypt as precisely that—"a coup." While the start of the Arab Spring was greeted in the West with pieties about the wonders of democracy, it has become increasingly obvious to Western governments that the Middle East's democratic opening might actually lead into Pandora's box. This, added to the fact the Muslim Brotherhood discredited itself by its incompetent handling of power, lays the way for the reestablishment of a military regime on the pattern of the Mubarak era.

This was always the most likely outcome of the Egyptian revolution. Revolutions are inevitably followed by periods of chaos, and in so deeply polarized a society as Egypt it was unlikely that any democratic process could achieve reconciliation. The military cleverly gave other organized political forces—the liberals and the Brotherhood—enough rope to hang themselves with before reemerging as the only force that could promise to bring some sort of stability and predictability to both Egypt's domestic situation and its international relations.

But for Egypt's old guard as well as the West, the risks of recreating the symbiotic relationship that preceded the Arab Spring are obvious. Even if the dust settles from the latest round of violence with the military's control relatively secure, little has been done to address the economic problems which largely led to the uprising against Mubarak's rule in the first place. The country will also be more polarized than ever, with even less chance of reconciliation and some form of lasting social peace.

The direction of Egypt's Islamist movement, and that in the wider Middle East, will also be profoundly affected by these events. The hope of some sort of Islamist "middle way" which could see political Islam reconciled with democracy is vanishing. Even if these hopes were always a mirage, as they may have been, the large numbers of Egyptians who voted first for the Muslim Brotherhood and then for Mohamed Morsi will note that they are being snatched away by an Egyptian military which enjoys Western funding and is experiencing only mild rebukes for its actions.

In the future, it will be impossible to persuade Egypt's Islamists that any democratic political process is not hopelessly stacked against them. This can be expected to only fuel greater discontent against both the regime and the United States, while the military's attempts to marginalize the brotherhood entirely from politics invite an urban insurgency. Putting the lid back on Pandora's box is not always as easy as some might hope.

Andrew Gawthorpe is a teaching fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Image: Flickr/Tactical Technology Collective. CC BY-SA 3.0.