Across the Middle East, for the first time, there is open debate about the role of religion in politics. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s superior organization, those who support an intrinsically secular approach to government — and this is true in most of the region — are probably in the majority.
Society can be deeply imbued with religious observance; but people are starting to recognize that democracy works only as a pluralistic concept, requiring equal respect for different faiths and allowing a voice, but not a veto, for religion. For a country like Egypt, with its immense and varied civilization, which includes around eight million Christians and a young population that needs to be connected to the world, there is no future as an Islamic state that aspires to be part of a regional caliphate.
So what should the West do? Egypt is the latest reminder that the region is in turmoil and will not leave us alone, however much we may wish it would. Disengagement is not an option, because the “status quo” is not an option. Any decision not to act is itself a decision of vast consequence.
At its crudest, the West cannot afford Egypt’s collapse. So it should engage with the new de facto power and help the new government make the changes necessary, especially with respect to the economy, so that it can deliver adequate performance for Egypt’s citizens. In that way, it can also help shape a path back to the ballot box that is designed by and for Egyptians.
Engagement is demanded elsewhere in the region as well. As for Syria, the worst that can happen is unacceptable: effective partition of the country, with a poor, extremist-led Sunni state in the east, shut out from the sea and the country’s wealth. In that case, Lebanon would be totally destabilized, Iraq further destabilized, and Jordan placed under even greater pressure (which only King Hussein’s courageous leadership is managing to contain, on behalf of us all). What would be left for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to govern would depend on Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, and Iran.
As for the Islamic Republic, Iranian president-elect Hassan Rowhani may want to reach an agreement with the world on the country’s nuclear ambition — or he may not. Either way, ultimate power in Iran still rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The world cannot afford a nuclear-armed Iran. I haven’t even mentioned the challenges of Libya, Yemen, or, further afield, Pakistan, or the plague of extremism now coursing through the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Central Asia.
The West’s interests demand that we remain engaged. We have to make decisions for the long-term, because, in the short term, there are no simple solutions. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s current dedication and drive on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is exemplary: If it matters, act on it, however difficult.
A long transition in the Middle East is underway. It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Many in the West believe that it should be someone else’s job to help sort it out. It is our job. This struggle matters to everyone.
The good news is that there are millions of modern and open-minded people in the Middle East. They need to know that we are on their side, that we are their allies — and that we are prepared to pay the price to be there with them.