2:36 p.m. August 15, 2013

More Western Meddling: The Last Thing Egypt Needs

Fighting continues on the streets of Cairo and the death toll from the military massacre has risen to over 600. It wasn't supposed to be like this. But, then again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And the blood of people caught in the middle of international power plays.

It would be nice if we could all be nice to one another, but we can't. Tough luck.

I claim no particular expertise on Egypt. The war I'm used to covering was already over, at least officially, by the time I became a reporter. Besides, it was a small scale affair, amplified Spinal Tap-style by Irish self-pity and the fact that civil conflict wasn't supposed to happen in Britain's backyard. Egypt's bloodied street fighting and military coup makes Ulster loyalists' best efforts look like a scene from Trumpton.

Stepping back a bit, though, there are things to consider. The first is simple: expecting a post-revolutionary state to be stable and produce mature institutions is barking mad.

Still, liberals appear to be desperate to do something to help. I suppose that's the condition of being a liberal. As I previously argued in NSFWCORP, one idea might be leaving other people's countries alone. In the absence of meaningful connections between Western liberals and those in the Middle East, solidarity becomes, at best, empty words. At worst it gives license to the Great Powers to open the bomb bay doors. Certainly the Manichean idea that one must support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Egyptian military makes no sense whatsoever.

As should be clear already, I for one am not a fan of Islamism. But I am even less of a fan of bossing other people around. So, while soi disant liberals are now supporting harsh, illiberal and now murderous measures against the Muslim Brotherhood, many on the far left (yes, I know, but I'm in Europe and we still have a left) have become cheerleaders for every dodgy Islamist regime or group in the hope of giving the Yanks one in the eye. Neither of these is a tenable or principled position.

Thankfully the EU is impotent in the face of the violence. Thankfully, because Europe jumping both feet first into the Middle East could result in nothing other than catastrophe.

For now EU officials are issuing the usual boilerplate statements. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the government must "ensure that all Egyptians – regardless of their political convictions – can protest peacefully." Similarly Baroness Ashton, the EU's High Representative for foreign affairs, has called on the military to "exercise utmost restraint and on all Egyptian citizens to avoid further provocations and escalation". All very noble. And all entirely meaningless. Which is how it should be, because the only way they could be enforced is by use of force.

Ashton has also said Egypt's future depends on dialogue between all parties and efforts to enable "full political participation", including for the Muslim Brotherhood. There is nothing particularly problematic about this, except for the fact that it is not in the EU's gift to ensure such a thing happens.

It's not as if either the EU or the US has a particularly glorious history of spreading peace, democracy and freedom abroad. Bad faith isn't even required to explain the litany of failures, either.

Using American – or UN, Nato or EU – military might to spread solidarity is like using a B52 to pacify a domestic argument. Obviously over the top and ultimately unhelpful. Egyptians will have to sort out their problems themselves. That sounds harsh to contemporary ears, especially when we are confronted with appalling images from Egypt, but it is rooted in an important, if unpopular, position: national sovereignty is a condition of freedom. No-one can be freed from without; it has to come from within.

There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood is an illiberal force in Egyptian society, but the possibility that its overthrow by the military was a mere stage in an ongoing revolution must now be put to bed. The army had its chance to stand down. It has failed to do so. In fact, it has done the opposite. Being liberal means supporting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the rule of law. Egypt's military has now demonstrated with absolute clarity that it has no respect for any of these things. As a result, the future of Egypt is not one of liberal democracy, it is one of bloody conflict between two not particularly appealing forces.

President Obama has now cancelled joint military exercises with Egypt. Calls are growing for him to cancel the $1.3 billion military subsidy paid annually to the Egyptian armed forces to be cancelled – which poses the question what the US was doing funding the military, whether under Mubarak, Morsi and now Mansour.

In the meantime, anyone in the West who wants preach solidarity should consider there is a middle ground between grousing on Twitter and either gunboat diplomacy or joining forces with reactionary Islam. It's called supporting the institutions that make up civil society. Disliking the Muslim Brotherhood does not mean one should support repressive military government. In fact, to do so is counter productive. Likewise, disliking American foreign policy does not demand cosying-up to the Muslim Brotherhood. A true liberal civil society cannot be created at gunpoint, regardless of whether that gun is wielded by foreigners, the national armed forces or a political group with scant regard for the niceties of civil society.

Of course, no-one is as yet suggesting military action, but that seems to be the sole form so-called "solidarity" takes on these days.

For me, at any rate, I cannot get past the fact that Mubarak's regime being replaced by Islamism was inevitable when we in West – we the people, not our governments – have shown so little interest in building bridges with the beleaguered secular institutions that suffered so much under so-called Arab socialism. For well-meaning Westerners the tragedy is that a political vacuum was created when it need not have been so.