Most vehement and most concerned, it seemed, were Pakistanis and Turks, who understood that democracy by other means is not democracy. Perhaps in the pre-Ramadan spirit, they wished for their brotherly country what they wished for themselves. But many Egyptians responded to this concern with an emphatic "mind your own business."
That's regrettable, because Pakistan and Turkey offer relevant lessons. That's also peculiar, because the Arab world's biggest country has been in decline at least since the 1960s; in the decades since it was not Islamists but secular and pseudo-nationalist military strongmen who tightly held the reins of power and rode the state into a ditch.
Why then turn to the military to solve your problems, when it has caused most of them? Turkey has always been a stronger state -- governmentally and bureaucratically speaking -- but Pakistan and Turkey offer their own relevant experiences. Turkey suggests the promise and potential of a gradual opening to democracy, while Pakistan sends warning shots.
How do we decline from here?
What most concerns me about Egypt's trajectory is not that Egypt is going back to square one, returning to Jan. 25, 2011, if not earlier. What concerns me most is how the Middle East and North Africa are fragmenting and how Egypt plays into this fragmentation. Because Egypt has obviously become irrelevant, except as a prize.
If I sound harsh, it's because I want Egyptians to realize what's happening. As America's interest in the region wanes, as America pivots to Asia, as America produces more of its own energy, and as America finds it harder to define what its priorities should be in a volatile period, there will be increasing regional competition to fill America's shoes.
Unlike East Asia, where China is clearly dominant, or Latin America, where Brazil is clearly the hegemon, the Middle East stands apart. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but Samuel Huntington's point about core states, from "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," holds true. Who's in charge? Who has the vision to dominate the region? Answer: No idea, no one, and no one.
The Middle East is like a less powerful version of pre-World War I Europe, with messy alliances, incipient nationalisms, revolutionary and anarchist movements, and various kinds of extremisms, cutting in-between and across states and societies. Cultures that have had so much in common for so long are variously terrified or anxious about each other at best.
And their political behavior reflects as much.
Some countries give money: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE. These are the patrons, whether their support comes in cash, weaponry, or other assistance. (Of these five, only one's a democracy, the one without oil money. Note also that a non-rentier state like Turkey can only be a patron because it is a democracy.)
And then there are Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- and Egypt. These are the patronized, ever in search of assistance; Egypt stands out here because it's by far the biggest and the most critical, and so its underperformance and in fact economic dependence is the most astonishing.
Parag Khanna wrote a book, "Second World," about how the major world powers -- the US and China -- would establish hegemony by developing alliances with second-tier powers, like Kazakhstan, for example. I'd suggest we can translate his argument into miniature and apply it to the Middle East and North Africa.
The patronized are the Middle East's second world. Whoever wins them, wins the contest for regional domination.
Will a Turkish-Egyptian axis dominate the region, or a Saudi-Egyptian axis, or rather a Syrian-Lebanese-Iranian front, or something we haven't thought of yet, because things change every five days so why not? Critically, this is less a partnership of relative equals -- think of Franco-German cooperation in the EU -- and generally one of hierarchy.
Especially when democracy is not the operative cause. And this is where Pakistan comes in. Like Egypt, Pakistan has a strong military tradition. Like Egypt, Pakistan has had a series of mostly unsuccessful wars with a far more powerful neighbor. Like Egypt, Pakistan is dependent on a major river and the agriculture it enables. Like Egypt, Pakistan has a huge, growing population suffering great poverty.
And like Egypt, Pakistanis once welcomed military coups.
But unlike Pakistan, Egypt has yet to suffer the worst effects of being patronized.
Today Pakistan suffers horrific sectarian violence, extremism, and anarchy, and does so for many reasons. Partly this is because under despotic regimes, marginalized populations will seek external assistance to support their cause. (No other way for grievances to be addressed.) And external powers are more than happy to oblige, because they see in potential patrons ways to advance their causes -- or stymie others'.
From the late 1970s especially, regional powers (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia) -- and international powers -- poured weaponry into Pakistan to win in Afghanistan, to sway Pakistan to their side or to keep Pakistan from someone else's side. The worst of this came from Saudi Arabia, whose Islam was exported like cheap 1980s Chinese goods: Inferior, low-cost, flooding the market with the lowest cost denominator.
Pakistan still suffers from the angry, vitriolic, bankrupt and barbaric "Islams" that were preached and patronized for years and years. And now Egypt is being offered billions by competing parties, all of whom are acting for various and sometimes even conflicting reasons. Maybe they want Egypt on their side. Or maybe they want to keep Egypt from rising, because a powerful Egypt threatens certain countries.
The worst possible outcome is for Egypt to turn into Syria. We might consider that impossible. But did we imagine Syria imploding even five years ago? Already Egypt has in Libya a massive border with plenty of weapons that can and do cross; the Sinai is a warning of things that might come. And in Pakistan's case, outside powers rarely cared what happened, except that parochial and autocratic interests were saved.
I hope Egypt doesn't go down the road of continued instability, because where there is a vacuum, patrons rush in. Some patrons offer business links and development assistance -- that's what wealthier EU nations did, in better times, for newer members. Other patrons bring toxicity, intellectually and otherwise, because their patronage is one-sided and utilitarian. How to escape this trap is no easy question.
But the emphasis now must be on a process that minimizes the role of the military and emphasizes the necessity of popular and civil forces, on the ground, with actual popular representation -- this means more of June 30th and less of El Baradei -- to come to some kind of compromise. And if not? Egyptian pride should be enough to resist the alternate scenario. Egypt will be the second world of the third world.