Thomas L. Friedman: Only hope for Egypt is a unity government

07/13/2013 12:00 AM

07/12/2013 6:42 PM

Anyone who has followed Middle East politics knows it is a region where extremists tend to go all the way and moderates tend to just go away.

But every once in a while – the 1993 Oslo peace negotiations, the 2006 Anbar uprising by Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaida, the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon against Syria and Hezbollah – the moderates actually rise up and take a stand. And when they do, America needs to be there to support them. It is the only hope for moving this region – so poisoned by sectarianism and weighed down by a past that always wants to bury the future – onto a more positive path.

I’d put last week’s popular uprising/military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government – and it was a combination of both – in this category.

I do not arrive at that conclusion easily. It would have been far more preferable if President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party had been voted out of office in three years. This would have forced the party to confront its own incompetence and popular repudiation. I wish the Egyptian army, which has its own interests, had not been involved.

But perfect is not the menu anymore in Egypt. In fact, even food may not be on the menu anymore for the poor.

A large number of Egyptians felt that waiting three years could have pushed Egypt over the edge. The country is so short of foreign currency to pay for fuel imports that gas lines and electricity shortages are everywhere. It was clear that Morsi was not focused on governing and appointing the best people for jobs. He was focused on digging himself and his party into power, so, by the time of the next presidential elections, Egypt could have had the worst of all worlds: an invincible government and an insoluble economic and social disaster.

Rather than punishing Egyptians for desperately trying to change course before they go over a cliff, America should use its aid and influence with the army to get the most out of this crisis. That starts by insisting that the Brotherhood leaders be released from jail and that the party and its media be free to contest the next parliamentary elections and have a voice in the constitution-writing process. Anyone who tries to govern Egypt alone will fail: former President Hosni Mubarak, the army, the Muslim Brothers, the liberals.

Egypt is in a terrible, deep hole, and the only way it can get out is with a national unity government that can make hard decisions and do the required heavy lifting.

Indeed, the big question for Egypt is not only who rules but how anyone can rule. Can a fragile new democracy make progress in the face of such deep economic dislocation and distress? I just returned from Egypt. It is falling apart.

The confluence of population, climate, unemployment, water scarcity and illiteracy may be making Egypt ungovernable. I hope not, but I do know this: Egypt can’t just keep oscillating between a secular/military regime that isolates the Brotherhood and a Brotherhood regime that isolates the other side.

If new elections and a new constitution can be implemented and a broad national unity government formed – including Islamists – there is still a chance that Egypt can manage all the problems that it can no longer avoid and still avoid the even worse problems that it cannot possibly manage. But it’s only a chance.

America’s job is to nudge all parties toward such a national unity coalition.

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