The international media coverage of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government in Egypt by the military has generally been lopsided and focused on the military’s various violations of human rights. There has been some mention of attacks by MB supporters on Coptic churches and individuals, but most of the focus has been on the sins of the army. While it is probably more likely that the military has killed more people than the MB (given that the military is better armed and trained), we should not discount the fact that many MB supporters are armed and violent and that a percentage of the casualties were created by MB attacks against the security forces as well as government supporters among the citizenry. Since many of the “combatants” in this case are citizens, casualty figures often mask how many of the people injured or killed were truly innocent bystanders and how many were violent, armed combatants in plainclothes.
At any rate, the larger question for the United States has to do with what U.S. policy should be in light of events in Egypt. The United States cannot, of course, completely ignore the massive bloodshed in Egypt and cannot be seen as sanctioning this violence. Americans, however, often believe that every conflict involves “good guys” and “bad guys” and that, once identified, the United States should clearly side with the “good guys.” As Peter Schwartzstein notes in a recent article in The Atlantic, there appear to be no “good guys” in the current conflict in Egypt.
I would argue that we have to stop looking for good guys where we are not likely to find any and instead focus on our interests, which are to support the army in its efforts to stabilize Egypt. Once the dust has settled (because the army is now at war with the MB) and the army feels it is in complete control, we can then try to encourage the army to broaden its appeal to Egyptians and to engage in effective stewardship of the Egyptian economy and government. Democracy can still be an aspirational goal, but democracy requires democratic values. Free elections that vote into power anti-democratic parties do not represent the exercise of democracy; they represent the exercise of populism.
An MB government, democratically elected or not, was never going to turn out well, and the fact that they tried to aggrandize power should come as no surprise to anyone. Did people actually think that once they came to power via the ballot they would suddenly abandon their principles and embrace democracy, pluralism, secularism, and freedom of thought? Were people hoping that, given power, the MB would somehow mellow?
We only ever had two choices with Egypt: an authoritarian military regime that quashes human rights or an authoritarian MB regime that quashes human rights. The difference between these two options, of course, is that the generals are more pro-Western. That, in my book, is reason enough to support them.