America’s Missed Opportunity in Egypt

The brutal crackdown on August 14 by Egypt’s interim government on supporters of ousted President Mohammad Morsi will produce no winners. Both the secular interim government and its Islamist predecessor demonstrated they lack the intellectual and political tools required to cope with Egypt’s complex challenges. Now, all Egyptians will suffer as the country descends into an explosive cycle of political stalemate and violence, which already features military assaults on peaceful protesters and (as reported in international news broadcasts) retaliatory burning of churches and police stations.

The roots of this current tragedy lie with the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. His nearly four decades of authoritarian rule left Egyptian society with two equally unpalatable options for structuring its political system: authoritarianism or Islamism. For the past two and a half years, these two poles have been fighting it out in Egypt’s streets and at the ballot box. Each side has demonstrated it lacks philosophical grounding in the ideals of classical liberalism that are a prerequisite for democracy; and each side has therefore doomed Egypt to political instability for as far as the eye can see.

It did not have to be this way.

Egypt enjoys an impressive group of democratic activists who have risked their well-being and their lives for years in pursuit of liberal ideals. In theory, they could garner considerable support from tens of millions of voters in Egypt’s political center who long for the same democratic freedoms and prosperity we enjoy in the Euro-Atlantic community. But, in practice, Egypt’s democrats have never experienced a level playing field. Distrusted and repressed for years by the Mubarak regime, Egypt’s classical democrats were unprepared to take the field during the Arab Spring. This left the post-Mubarak political arena to Egypt’s best organized political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political ideology leaves no space for classical liberal democracy; it instead strives for a world in which religious jurisprudence governs all aspects of society, not just private faith, but also politics, economics, business, culture, and all social norms. According to this vision, democratic laws, which derive from reasoning employed in isolation from religious doctrine, must eventually be supplanted by divine law, which will lead to a society based on justice.

The Morsi government therefore had neither the commitment nor the ambition to advance the liberal democracy for which Western observers cheered during the Arab Spring. Morsi’s team viewed Egypt’s post-Mubarak elections as a case of “one man, one vote, one time,” correctly anticipating that the Muslim Brotherhood’s superior organizational strength would allow it to dominate free and fair elections and the subsequent restructuring of Egypt’s political system. Their top priority was not to tackle Egypt’s complex political and economic challenges, but instead to transform Egypt according to their ideological vision — while vanquishing their political opponents. Like the Mubarak regime, the Morsi government decided it needed to sideline Egypt’s democrats. The result was economic stagnation and political disaster, with mass street protests in July against an incompetent though democratically elected government that prompted its ouster.

The Morsi government’s failure provided another chance for Egypt’s secular elite comprising the interim government to lead the country toward the evolution of a truly democratic political system. The secularists squandered this opportunity with their brutal crackdown on peaceful pro-Morsi protesters on August 14. The interim government arrived at this point of failure in large part due to its lack of a cadre of experienced liberal democrats who could have argued convincingly for political discourse — as difficult as this had become — rather than violence. Now, in the aftermath of the interim government’s brutality, Egypt is left with no credible or competent political grouping to lead the country forward. And, the classical democrats remain hamstrung.

Where this will all lead and what is the best way to guide Egypt out of its deep political and economic crisis is impossible to discern. Events will unfold according to the logic of violence and brute force.

What is clear is that for many other countries, there is ultimately no smooth glide path out of authoritarianism to political stability other than the sacrifice of difficult reforms such as those undertaken by Estonia and its Baltic neighbors in the post-Soviet period. Granted, these countries were blessed with wise leaders and frugal populations historically connected to earlier democratic movements and market economies. It is impossible to replicate their unique experiences elsewhere.

But, authoritarian leaders who still seek to seal the pot of democratic activism are kidding themselves, whether those authoritarians are secular dictators or Islamist extremists. Absent serious and sometimes risky efforts to cultivate the principles of classical liberalism in any society, its members will eventually grow frustrated with their lack of democratic freedom and prosperity, and the pot will boil over.

Neither Estonia nor its Baltic partners can influence the outcome of Egypt’s current internal struggle. But, together with Georgia, they can share their experience with groundbreaking reform (despite numerous shortcomings) and help empower democratic forces that are essential for other countries to avoid their own Egypt-style descent into an enduring political confrontation that sidelines democratic reformers. This will often involve not only pressure on a sitting government, but also a non-hectoring effort to build trust among competing political groupings.

For a short period, the second Administration of U.S. President George W. Bush tried to do precisely this. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponed her visit to Egypt in March 2005 to protest the jailing of democracy advocate and Ghad Party Chairman Ayman Nour in anticipation of Egypt’s first free and fair elections promised by Mubarak for September of that year. But, the Bush Administration quickly dropped this tangible support for Egypt’s democrats following Hamas’s victory in Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006.

Had both the Bush and Obama Administrations sustained active support for inclusion of democracy advocates in Egypt’s political processes, perhaps Cairo’s streets would now be quiet while parliamentary debate would be vigorous. Though this opportunity has clearly passed in Egypt, it is not too late to help other countries find a democratic alternative to the false choice of authoritarianism or Islamism and thereby prevent today’s Egypt from emerging as a paradigm rather than an anomaly.

Matthew Bryza is senior fellow with the Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center, former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, and current director of the International Centre for Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia.

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Image: President Barack Obama with Hosni Mubarak, June 2009 (photo: White House)