If secular policymakers should have learned anything over the last decade in the Middle East, it’s that religious fundamentalist blowback can be very severe, and that actions should be taken only after calculating not only the short-term potential gains but also the long-term risks and consequences.
For instance, when the United States instigated a coup against the democratically elected Iranian president Mossadegh in fear of dreaded socialism that might threaten western oil company profits, it led directly to the backlash that put the Ayatollahs in power in Tehran. American shortsightedness and corporate greed were directly responsible for the right-wing religious revolution that continues to abuse the Iranian people and threaten Israel to this day. More recently, of course, the decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein without creating stability and empowerment in the Sunni areas of Iraq led directly and inevitably to the rise of ISIS.
The situation in Egypt is playing out in a similar fashion. After the Arab Spring led to the deposition of the western-friendly dictatorship in Egypt, the primary organizing force able to take control of the country was the Muslim Brotherhood. Many left-libertarians hail the Arab Spring as a demonstration of the power of popular revolt and civil disobedience–but they fail to note that revolution itself does very little good without a plan for a transition to sustainable, progressive and secular government. Fearing the consequences of a democratically elected Islamist government, the military and other secular forces staged a coup–tacitly and directly supported by much of the west–to oust Muslim Brotherhood leader and newly elected president Morsi.
Now the new, more secular totalitarian government in Egypt has sentenced Morsi to death, ostensibly for his role in a prison break of Muslim Brotherhood political prisoners.
On shortsighted first glance, this may appear to be a blow for secularism against the danger of Islamist extremism. But on the other hand and more importantly, it’s an act of totalitarian political oppression against a democratically elected leader. One way to rectify this dilemma is, as Fareed Zakaria notes in his book The Future of Freedom, to ensure the rise not only of democracy but of constitutional democracy, in which secular principles of free speech and freedom of worship are enshrined such that religious fundamentalist takeover would be constitutionally impossible.
As it stands, however, the death sentence against Morsi will not weaken the Islamists but only radicalize them further. Egypt was a rare case study in which Islamist extremism had a chance to compete on its own terms in a democratic fashion, rather than topple governments at the point of a gun. Winning an election would have forced the extremists to attempt to govern–and to accept the inevitable electoral consequences of their failure to govern effectively (as is almost always the case with conservative extremists.)
Instead, Islamists have been given a case study in why they should never attempt to engage in the democratic process. Morsi’s example is living proof that whatever they wish to achieve, they will have to accomplish through violence and violence alone.
That in turn will cause more damage than anything Morsi might be able to accomplish alive.