Earlier this year I read Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen Platt. The book, which is excellent, is the story of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) which took place in southern China during the waning days of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The Taiping heavenly king, a failed Confucian scholar named Hong Xiuquan, led a rebellion among the dispossessed of the Southern Chinese Han and Hakka peoples against the ruling Manchurian dynasty. What makes the Taipings interesting to Westerners, and this is the focus on Platt’s narrative, is that they were Christians, of a sort. The impact of British, American, German, and Swedish protestant missionaries from the”treaty port” city of Shanghai had a notable influence on the Taiping movement, which held Hong Xiuquan to be the brother of Jesus Christ, and which had elements of Protestant teaching, Western meritocracy, Chinese political classicism, and rural millenarianism. The Taipings were also initially very friendly to the Western powers and their merchants, notably Britain, which was at the time in intermittent open warfare with the Manchu Dynasty in the North.
The Taipings were treated as something of an odd curiosity in Britain’s parliament, with some MPs vigorously attacking and some defending the movement, but the prevailing attitude, even with the detailed reports of Protestant missionaries, remained that the Taiping were a party to be tolerated as long as they remained friendly to trade, but not treated as legitimate (an interesting parallel to the struggle for Southern secession in the contemporary US). The reports of British potentates in China, who were soured against all Chinese and did not make the distinction between the xenophobic Manchus and the more welcoming Taipings, ultimately led the British to fire upon and repeatedly attack Taipings who came with overtures of friendship. As the Taiping ultimately established quasi-religious but fairly absolutist doctrines, the British came to reject them, and this continued reaction ultimately sidelined the Taiping moderate reformers in favor of the active generals who were more openly antagonistic to foreign powers.
The British government ultimately would decide that the Manchu leadership was (despite demonstrable cruelty and hostility) the side to back, and Britain went from burning down Beijing in 1860 to sending military advisors and building steam-powered vessels for their former enemies only a year or two later. With this aid, the Manchus crushed and brutally extirpated the Taiping, though they never grew to trust the West and threw in their lot with the violent anti-Western Boxers only half a century later (before finally being dethroned in 1911).
Yesterday, it was announced that the White House had agreed to unfreeze arms exports and military aid to Egypt’s government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who as Defense Minister of the Egyptian Army overthrew the democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) in July of 2013. Morsi, the first democratically elected president following the 2011 resignation of Hosni Mubarak after waves of popular protest rocked the Arab world, presided over a openly moderate, but very religiously conservative movement. Since Morsi’s arrest, Sisi, who was elected to the Presidency in 2014, has overseen an outwardly secular government, but a very repressive one.
The decision to renew arms shipments received bi-partisan support in Congress, and was widely hailed as a important move, especially as Egypt is joining a coalition of Arab nations attacking the Houthi Shi’a rebels that have taken power in Yemen (and initiating a proxy war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran). Arms shipments were originally frozen in protest over Sisi’s coup, which overturned the Democratic process.
The reason I bring up the parallel to the Taipings, which is not a perfect one, is because the United States has just signaled, very loudly, that the might of military force makes right in the authoritarian states of the Middle East. The force of popular democracy in Egypt after Tahir Square ushered in, admittedly by only a slight majority, what had been an oppressed and growing fringe party of Islamic conservatives. Americans of every stripe do not care for the Brotherhood’s politics, which are admittedly what could be defined as anti-liberal and infringing on the civil rights of Egypt’s citizens, especially women and its religious minorities. However, popular democracy was something that America demanded when Sec. of State Hilary Clinton insisted that Mubarak must bow to the will of his people and step down. The Administration ultimately followed through with the idea that the Coup’s leaders ought to be accountable for usurping popular democracy by restricting, however incompletely, military support. Of course, Brotherhood rule was not particularly something America could look forward to, but in a way, America had set the conditions and supported the rhetoric of the Arab Spring, which sought to replace autocrats with democratically elected governments. In other words, we owned it, at least partially.
Now, however, Washington has signaled that it ultimately accepts Sisi’s usurpation, and perhaps welcomes it. Like Britain’s military aid to the Manchus, the decision is partly a boon to the troubled defense industry. Freezing American aid and foreign shipments to the Egyptian Army, a regular and good customer (over $1 billion in government-approved Foreign Military Sales delivered in 2013), has seen the Egyptian marketed targeted by the French and Russian defense industries. France just sold 24 Rafale Fighters to Egypt, no doubt alarming the American aeronautics industry who saw Egypt as their market during a budgetary reduction in the United States. There are very specific parallels to Britain’s insistence on selling an entire fleet to the Manchus (though technically remaining neutral, just as the Administration claims it is doing) in order to edge out the Russian and French and to boost British shipbuilding.
So too did the British authorities in China associate the Taiping with banditry because they were a fringe movement, even though Taiping armies reportedly enforced sobriety and maintained better discipline when treating the average Chinese peasant then the Manchu Armies. Similarly, our commercial interests and desire to be geo-strategically engaged with the right people trumped Arab Spring democracy, which saw popular elections elevate in a group which was too religiously conservative for our tastes, but historically well disciplined and devout.
The Sisi government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has seen many imprisoned and hundreds condemned to death after show trials. A year ago, the Government sentenced 683 people to death in one trial, unofficially due to their connections to the Brotherhood. The number of death sentences have actually been carried out is debated, but still analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace warns us of an increasingly hyper-nationalist and anti-democratic movement which has repressed dissent, brutally.
So where does this leave American interests? On the one hand, this is a moral abnegation of what seems like an American Exceptionalist responsibility to defend the first principles of democracy. As Steven Cook writes in an article for Foreign Policy “How do you give more money to a leadership that has jailed tens of thousands, killed between 1,000 and 2,500, restricts freedom of expression, and forces dissidents into self-imposed exile, much of it in the name of counterterrorism?” This is a question Washington has had to ask itself time and time again, especially as we ally with one reprehensible authoritarian power after another in the name of defeating terrorism (while often suffering from terrorism that power either turns a blind eye to or actively sponsors). This is where the horrendous credos of the jihadist movements of Dr. Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden have resonance to the religiously conservative Sunni Arab populations of the Middle East: the unashamed negation of supposedly Western virtues in order to serve what is easily misconstrued as semi-Imperial undermining of Islamic religion and jurisprudence. While democracy and illiberal Salafism don’t necessarily mix, that hardly matters to Egyptians who saw democracy defeated without a bang, or even much of a whimper, from the US.
At the same time, the new nationalist and secular Egyptian government has been a working partner with Israel, a good arms customer, and now a very active enemy of Iranian backed Houthis and ISIS offshoots in the Sinai and Libya. Dedicated and aggressive counterterrorism among Arab allies is the kind of action Washington has sought from the beginning of the new millennium, so it is hard to turn your back on it when it is going forward so vigorously, especially when the American defense industry gets a sizeable opportunity as well. When the editors of the London Times spoke of the Taiping in 1862, and when Palmerston defended British assistance to the Manchus, whose official policy was to take no prisoners in a way that makes Sisi’s government look humanitarian, the commercial interests of Britain ultimately won out over any sympathy for those fighting for Christian and pro-Western principles (easily dismissed due to the un-examined prejudices of bigoted individuals).
This is a morally hazardous paradox of security, both economic and physical, in our attempts to counteract the rise of regimes friendly to Salafi ideals which may prove willing to aid and abet anti-American actions. In all of our love for American exceptionalism, it is often only tacitly acknowledged that democracy can be dangerous because it allows popular sentiment to rule, and not everyone thinks the West is great or the ideal to be reached for. America has had its own problems with checks and balances on popular sovereignty and civil liberties, and some Princeton scholars recently argued that democracy in our own nation is now largely a fiction. While I wouldn’t go that far, there is undeniably some double standards in our conduct. This is, as Reinhold Niebuhr would explain, a moral casualty of our world power, and in a purely realist approach, it is a hazard worth taking to secure our power and influence in the region at this critical juncture.
However, like Britain in China, we should be aware that there may come risks from such support, especially with a little reinterpretation of history. The Taiping have been seized on by nationalists and communists alike as a force of native resistance to Manchu authoritarianism and a demonstration (which, historically,the Chinese do not require more of) of the predatory policies of avaricious and faithless foreigners. Winning over Egypt’s current authorities may be a pragmatic move, especially as we seek to shield Israel and counteract Iran, but it ought to be remembered that arming Egypt’s military will simply reinforce much of what our enemies may say about us, and we must accept for that a historical point of contention which may turn against us. When the Boxers rose up to slaughter Westerners, the Manchus were not far behind, no matter what Britain did to aid against the Taiping. We must understand, implicitly, that we just negated our own liberal preference for popular democratically-elected governments (the same logic with which the Bush Doctrine justified the Iraq War), and, even as we spin what we have done, understand that the consequences down the road may be substantial.