The Egyptian army’s toppling of the country’s Islamist President Muhammad Morsi is the culmination of a year of political and social discontent and economic crisis in Egypt. It remains to be seen where and how Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood will strike back, but it is unlikely that this will lead to a civil war in Egypt of the kind currently being experienced by Syria. There could be a low-level insurgency (particularly in marginal areas like the Sinai) for some time to come, but Egypt is comparatively easier to govern because its population is mostly concentrated in a fairly small area (the Nile Valley). Of course, comparisons with Syria and Iraq are natural, but Egypt is also considerably more ethnically homogeneous than either of those countries and, generally speaking, ethnic sectarianism tends to be more brutal and longer-lived than most ideological divisions.
While the dispute in Egypt has encompassed religio-ethnic minorities like the Copts, it is primarily a dispute between Islamists of various shades on the one side and more liberal elements on the other. One of the chief points of dispute has to do with the role of religion. Consequently, I would argue, this qualifies as an ideological dispute more than anything else. The Egyptian army is also seen as the people’s army (whereas, by way of contrast, the Syrian army is perceived of as a tool of the Alawis and other minority groups in Syria). It therefore enjoys much more legitimacy. In fact, the army is probably the most legitimate institution in Egypt and certainly the most effective one (given the decrepit state of Egyptian institutions). No one can predict the future, but I argue that it is unlikely Egypt will turn out like Syria or Iraq. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has taken on the army before and lost, though it does seem to have more support today than in the past.
The current situation in Egypt requires U.S. policymakers to rethink whether democracy is such a good idea for all societies, at least in the short-term. Perhaps a fairly benevolent military dictatorship that moves the country in the direction of creating a democratic culture, strong institutions, and a robust civil society is preferable to bringing into power populist movements that aren’t committed to democracy (in addition to being incompetent). Of any actor in Egypt, the military is probably best suited to shepherding the country through this evolutionary process precisely because it seems to be an unwilling ruler that does not necessarily want to take responsibility for Egypt’s overwhelming economic and social challenges.
Of course, Egypt’s last three dictators – Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak – all came from the military, and so there is always the danger that a military ruler will start to feel too comfortable in this role. There are clearly risks in supporting military rule in Egypt; however, since the country does not have robust institutions, democratic traditions, and an independent civil society, and since the liberal wing of Egyptian politics is both divided over ideology and personalities and also does not enjoy the confidence of the very large chunk of the population that is pro-Islamist, a liberal-minded government in Egypt is not likely to be viable and to succeed in the short term.
The only realistic choice at this stage is the Egyptian army, and American policy makers should be thinking of ways to support the Egyptian army so that it is both encouraged to promote a gradual democratization as well as able to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the population.