DAVID IGNATIUS: U.S. remained irrelevant in Egypt

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – “Authoritarianism in the name of Islam is dead,” one Egyptian activist messaged last Sunday, as millions gathered in the streets to denounce the rule of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government.
What happened over the next few days combined elements of a popular uprising and a military coup. The mass protest against Morsi showed the strength of dissent. But the Egyptian army’s role in toppling Morsi Wednesday was a reminder that the danger of authoritarianism is still very much alive in the Middle East.
The United States has so far been largely irrelevant to events in Egypt. I wish the Obama administration had been doing more to back moderates in the Middle East, overall, but in Egypt, the U.S. deliberately played the role of mediator rather than decider. The army wanted a public American “green light” for its coup, but it didn’t get one.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the Egyptian people are writing their own history. They may be making mistakes along the way, and I wish we weren’t seeing a general in uniform seizing the stage again. But for once, the Middle East conspiracy theorists who always see America as the controlling force in events seem to have been wrong.
The target of last week’s protests was Morsi, but the mass demonstrations recalled the giddy days of the February 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The basic message was the same: We are citizens. We want dignity and human rights. We aren’t afraid of autocratic leaders or their thugs. That revolt led to military rule, too, but its spirit was one of idealism and democracy.
The protest against the Muslim Brotherhood in Sunni Egypt is matched by a similar renewal of dissent in Shiite Iran, where the 2009 Green Revolution was crushed by government repression. The unlikely emblem of change in Iran is Hassan Rouhani, elected president last month. He’s part of the clerical establishment that has run Iran for the past three decades. So it’s premature to assume that Rouhani’s election signals any breakthrough in stalled negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
But Rouhani’s victory does tell us something about the Iranian public mood: Among the six candidates who ran in the June 14 election, Rouhani was the most critical of the status quo; he called for reforms and new ties with the West.
Protesters have also shaken the Islamic populism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been an “authoritarian rock star,” in the words William Dobson, the author of “The Dictator’s Learning Curve.” But even Erdogan triggered a backlash after years of squeezing the Turkish media, courts and military.
The political culture of the Middle East has been broken for so many decades that it won’t be fixed easily or soon.
On America’s Independence Day, we celebrated the triumph of our democracy. But David McCullough reminds us in his book “1776” that in January of that revolutionary year, George Washington despaired that “few people know the predicament we are in.” It took America another 12 years to write and ratify a workable Constitution. In the Middle East, the convulsive democratic transition is just beginning.
DAVID IGNATIUS can be contacted at email address davidignatius@washpost.com.