American liberalism faces a crisis in Egypt. Should it support Mohamed Morsi, a man whose increasingly dictatorial tenure was democratic in name only and seemed bent on turning the country into an Islamic state? Or should it support the coup and the military, an institution that, though secular, systematically oppresses the Egyptian people and hardly has any democratic bona fides to speak of? Choosing between a broken, antagonistic democracy and a secular military dictatorship seems to pit one set of liberal values against another, forcing Americans to prioritize either democratic processes, like Morsi's electoral legitimacy, or democratic values, like minority rights, which arguably have greater chances under the military.
Our history is not devoid of lessons. Ever since America's ascendance as a world power, the dictates of foreign policy and national interests have at times conflicted with our liberal values. Generations who remember the Cold War were familiar with the dismal logic behind propping up unsavory regimes when the lone alternative was communism. After the Cold War, there was a dream of a truly disinterested America pursuing a liberal foreign policy unmolested by a global enemy, but 9/11 changed all that, and now we again live in a world where Americans are forced to choose at times between democratic Islamists like Hamas or undemocratic military regimes. Do we reject an Egyptian coup that, by removing an elected leader, potentially stalled a country's slide into Sharia law, or do we reject a would-be Islamist dictator, albeit one who was democratically elected?
Good news (kind of): we've been here before. Ngo Dinh Diem, the infamous president of South Vietnam, was, like Morsi, a very unpopular man. A devout Catholic and anti-communist who owed his political success to the country's landowning upper-classes, Diem presided over an overwhelmingly Buddhist population that was in desperate need of land reform. His anti-Buddhist policies, which included the suppression of religious liberty and unequal distribution of government services, led to, among other things, a Buddhist monk's self-immolation at a busy Saigon intersection in 1963. By that year, Diem was losing control of his country, along with the support of the United States and his own military. It all came to a head on November 1963, when Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated by a military-backed coup, with the tacit approval of the United States.
It was only after years had passed that it became clear that, by removing Diem, South Vietnam became defined as a puppet regime and a military dictatorship, especially vis-à-vis North Vietnam's so-called people's movement. Eventually, South Vietnam lost interest in the war, and soon many Americans were griping about having to fight their war for them. South Vietnam never regained an elected leader who could legitimately be said to represent the people's interests, and America's remaining partner — the military — grew increasingly isolated from their own country's political events. When Saigon fell, America was surprised.
Vietnam taught us that the most effective and enduring international partnerships are not between governments but between peoples, and, by effectively siding with the Egyptian coup, the United States has cut itself off from any potential partnership with the Egyptian people, despite whatever initial support the coup may have had. Generations of respect and engagement can turn even anti-American regimes into budding allies, and democracies that are messy at first can mature over time. But America abandoned that future in Egypt — along with its liberal principles — when it supported the coup. Those who claim that democracy in Egypt can wait are, by choosing the military, forcing it to. Neither side in Egypt is liberal, but only one can have a liberal future.