REMEMBER the opprobrium heaped on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, in June for using tear gas and water-cannon against his people? Imagine the outrage if Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to fire live ammunition into demonstrators on the streets of Moscow. But over the weekend, when Egypt’s generals set about killing scores of protesters, the West responded with furrowed brows and pleas for all sides to refrain from violence. Such meekness betrays not only a lack of moral courage, but also a poor sense of where Egypt’s—and the West’s—real interests lie.
The shooting took place in Cairo early on July 27th near the parade ground where, three decades earlier, President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. Supporters of Muhammad Morsi, ousted in a coup at the beginning of July, were marching to demand that the army should restore him to the presidency. Riot police (and their civilian supporters) opened fire. More than 80 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi’s party, died; many more were injured.
After the killing, Barack Obama kept his counsel. It fell to John Kerry, the American secretary of state, to speak out—and then he merely called on Egypt’s leaders to “step back from the brink”. Likewise in Britain David Cameron, the prime minister, left it to William Hague, the foreign secretary, to rap the generals over the knuckles. America’s protest at the ousting of Mr Morsi had been to delay the supply of some F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. But that modest gesture was more than undone just before the shootings. In an unwise precedent, the administration declined to say Egypt had suffered a coup, because to do so could have triggered an automatic block on aid.
The Muslim Brothers—and other Muslims across the Middle East—will conclude from all this that the West applies one standard when secularists are under attack and another when Islamists are. Democracy, they will gather, is not a universal system of government, but a trick for bringing secularists to power. It is hard to think of a better way for the West to discourage the Brothers from re-entering Egypt’s political process.
In any case, even supposing that the Brothers wanted to return to politics, it is unclear whether the army would let them back in. The generals now know that the West has given them more or less a free hand to do as they will. The army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has claimed that marches on July 26th gave him a “mandate” to confront “potential terrorism”. Already, the new government is resurrecting the hated arms of Hosni Mubarak’s securitystate.
The liberal Egyptians who teamed up with the army to oust Mr Morsi will come to regret their enthusiasm. Certainly, the Brothers ruled Egypt badly. They set about consolidating their own power and neglected the economy. They were chaotic and partisan. But Islamists make up a large part of the Egyptian population. The only way they can be excluded from politics is if the security forces hold much of the power. And if that happens, Egypt will not function as a free country.
Too clever by half
The West has an interest in the spread of democracy—and not just in Egypt. The process is neither easy nor inevitable. No doubt some clever student of realpolitik advised Mr Obama and Mr Cameron to keep in with the generals because they are in charge. But by so conspicuously holding back criticism first of the coup and now of the shooting of unarmed civilians, the West has confirmed the view of enemies of democracy everywhere: that its preaching is riddled with hypocrisy. The next time Mr Obama urges some authoritarian to embrace civil rights, he will find his case that bit harder to make.