Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic is no sympathizer with the Muslim Brotherhood -- if not an Islamophobe he's an Islamism-o-phobe -- but he tells us in his latest "Washington Diarist" column that "When I heard the news about the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi I was crestfallen, and this startled me." For all that he'd rather not see Morsi in power, he found the mass celebration of his overthrow "grotesque." What turned him off was "liberals rejoicing in a military coup!" For the sake of argument, let's agree that the people who had demonstrated against Morsi and now celebrated a military takeover were liberals, since Wieseltier's main argument is against a form of liberalism not exclusive to Egypt. While Egyptian liberalism appears unusually "lame," since "it relies on generals to do its work," Wielseltier's critique reads much like attacks from The New Republic on a kind of liberalism its writers and editors detect in these United States. He castigates Egyptian liberals, particularly their self-appointed spokesman Wael Ghonim, who boasts that the movement that toppled first Mubarak, and then (with military assistance) Morsi is "not an organization [nor] a political party." With such an attitude, it surprised neither Wieseltier nor many other observers that the Brotherhood's party won Egypt's first democratic election. The Brotherhood, as Wieseltier observes, is organized, while the liberals appear to abhor organizing. As a result, the liberals have a movement that specializes in protesting rather than governing, yet depends on another highly organized entity, the army, to give its protests force. Wieseltier warns that "the generals whom they glorify will not do liberalism's work." He wrote that well before today's military-approved demonstrations, which give strong hints of a cult of personality growing around General el-Sisi. He, not the civilians now supposedly governing the country, is the hero of the hour. His prominence makes Wieseltier's description of the Egyptian liberals as a "Bonapartist left" look potentially prescient.
"Democracy will never be created by people who do not take democracy seriously," Wieseltier concludes. The Egyptian liberals' alleged aversion to organization proves their lack of seriousness to the columnist. One can't help thinking that Wieseltier's remedy for what ails them, the proof he'd accept of their seriousness, would be the appearance in Egypt of something like the Democratic party, preferably in the deal-making, arm-twisting mode of LBJ vintage often idealized in The New Republic. While LBJ (if not Bill Clinton) may be the ideal, I've called the idea advanced by TNR "Neo-Lincolnism" based on the Sean Wilentz articles (echoed intentionally or not by the Spielberg biopic) emphasizing how much Lincoln was an arm-twisting, deal-making party politician instead of the idealistic rhetorician of alleged legend. If there's been truth to the charge that some liberals place too much trust in rhetoric or moral suasion, and more obvious truth in the observation that government is not a perpetual protest, it should still be possible to envision an alternative to party discipline as practiced by the old Democratic machines as a model for effective progressive politics. The Egyptian liberals (or Wael Ghonim, at least) claim to be tired of "charismatic leaders," -- even though el-Sisi seems to be accumulating charisma rapidly -- while Wieseltier implies that there is no organization, and thus no effective liberal democracy, without leadership to do the deal-making and arm-twisting. Any organization needs power, but how wrong are the Egyptians to worry that a conventional party organization will end up as just another top-down machine? They rejected Morsi and the Brotherhood as much from an aversion to the kind of machine politics he practiced as from an aversion to his religious zealotry. If they can come up with a nonpartisan alternative to representative government, we might even indulge the military in giving the liberals cover to figure out how to make it work. Whether the military is fully trustworthy is a separate though equally serious question, but it may be jumping to conclusions to condemn revolutionaries for not immediately producing a form of government that American liberals recognize. The Egyptian revolution is probably going to go for a while, so a little patience from the rest of the world may be in order.