Egypt as a nation predates the United States by millennia. But when Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi lectures the U.S., he conveniently forgets that Egypt as a democracy is an infant.
A week ago, Morsi told The New York Times that the U.S. should show greater respect for Arab values. “If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment,” he said. “When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the U.S. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.”
Morsi seconded what I wrote in “A Misleading Question” (September 14). A cultural gap exists. Take the matter of women. Morsi told The Times, “I will not prevent a woman from being nominated as a candidate for the presidential campaign. This is not in the Constitution. This is not in the law. But if you want to ask me if I will vote for her or not, that is something else, that is different.”
That Mr. Morsi believes women should not play a major role in affairs of state—what message does that deliver to Hillary Clinton?—is his business. That he believes that America and the West are filled with licentiousness also is his business. And to a great degree he’s right. But Morsi’s claims to moral superiority don’t hold water.
A September 20 article in The Jerusalem Post reported on Egyptian women calling on President Morsi to halt increasing incidents of sexual harassment. “According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, street harassment is shockingly commonplace, with 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women reporting incidents.” In February 2011, CBS TV news reporter Lara Logan was sexually attacked by a Cairo mob as other Egyptians protested for freedom in Tahrir Square. The abuse of women in the Greater Middle East is well documented.
When Morsi laments the inability of world organizations to stop the violence in Syria—he agrees that Bashar al Assad must go—he again makes a valid point. But he overlooks the inability of the Arab world—and Egypt—to police itself. Christian Copts are now fleeing Rafah, which borders Gaza, in the face of Islamist threats. Similarly, when Morsi suggests that Washington accept Egyptian values, he offers a pragmatic approach to two-party relations. But when he denies the validity of Western approaches to free speech, as he did at the UN on Wednesday, he plays to Islamists and places obstacles between Egypt and the West. I hope he read Tom Friedman’s column, “Backlash to the Backlash”. Friedman offers Arab voices calling for a major reality check—on the part of Arab leaders.
A healthy U.S.–Egypt relationship will take time. And humility. And a realization that ultimately, this isn’t about us. As Tunisian president Mocef Marzouki writes in today’s Times, “The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Morsi would be well advised to acknowledge that when it comes to making democracy work, ancient Egypt is the new kid on the block—and barely at the toddler stage.
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