Right now, democracy can't fix Egypt's problems

Beware the democracy industrial complex.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptians shout anti-terrorism slogans as they demonstrate in front the site of a blast at the Egyptian police headquarters, at right, and the Islamic museum, at left, in downtown Cairo, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. A car bomb struck the main Egyptian police headquarters Friday in the heart of Cairo, killing several people in a hugely symbolic attack on the eve of the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.

In a piece for The Atlantic Council released yesterday, Amy Hawthorne waves the flag for the democratization industry in Egypt.

Egypt, of course, has had four of its freest elections in its long history in the past three years. At the same time, it has seen an economic collapse, a military coup cheered by millions of Egyptians, the outlawing of its most organized and popular political movement as a terrorist group, and a surge in hyper-nationalist rhetoric. Almost anyone who speaks out against the new military-driven order is attacked as a traitor.

This isn't the fault of elections, often seen as the gold stamp of "democracy" by many here in the US and elsewhere – at least not exactly. Many Egyptians favor the decidedly illiberal and non-pluralistic Muslim Brotherhood to run the country, as was shown in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012. Many others hated that notion, and have thrown their support behind the July military coup and the spreading wave of repression against Brotherhood supporters and secular-leaning political activists that followed.

Meanwhile, political violence is surging. The three coordinated bombings targeting police in Cairo today are just the latest example.

Ms. Hawthorne says democracy is the answer.

Advancing US strategic interests ultimately depends on Egyptian stability—and repression cannot stabilize today’s Egypt. Authoritarian measures are unlikely to quell roiling popular discontent given the diverse sources of mobilization and resistance; instead they will fuel extremism. An Egypt caught in endless cycles of political strife will not tackle its severe economic and social problems. Efforts to crush the Brotherhood, stifle dissent, and put down a rising Islamist insurgency will strain Egypt’s weakened state capacity further; under  such conditions, the government cannot be an effective US partner.

A failing state in the Arab world’s most populous country is a dangerous prospect for the region, Europe, and the United States.

The only way Egypt will achieve lasting stability is to create an inclusive, consensus-based system of government involving all key political forces. This may seem an unimaginable task now. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood, an illiberal and widely distrusted yet deeply rooted movement, will be particularly hard to resolve. But Egypt has changed since 2011 in ways that make a lasting reconstitution of an authoritarian system unlikely. At present, anecdotal evidence and press coverage suggest that much of the Egyptian public strongly supports the newly repressive path. But Egyptian public opinion post-2011 has shown itself to be fickle. The January 25, 2011, uprising unleashed not only generalized public demands for change but also new social movements, dominated by young Egyptians with a distinct pro-democracy, anti-status quo mindset. They demand accountable government, human rights, and dignity. They believe in citizen activism and entrepreneurism to solve Egypt’s social and economic problems. These movements are not yet politically cohesive or electorally significant, but they have the potential to play a more significant democratizing role in the years to come.

This is all very well, but Hawthorne goes on to write that the US can guide Egypt towards democracy by withholding weapons deliveries, praising moves towards democracy and criticizing the opposite, and encouraging US private investment in the country and promoting tourism. She acknowledges this leverage is limited, but nevertheless suggests it can drive the country towards the kind of society the US wants.

Over time, more consistent US (and European) criticism of Egypt’s democracy record and other negative international attention could increase the political cost to the regime for sustaining authoritarian practices; when international pressure dovetails with domestic demands, the costs become high indeed.

Really? At the moment the country has the staunch financial backing of Saudi Arabia (a fact she acknowledges), which reflects the Saudi horror at the notion of American support for a democratic order emerging in Egypt. And as for dovetailing with domestic demands, many Egyptians are delighted with the role the Egyptian military is once again playing in Egyptian politics.

I have watched US democracy promotion efforts in Egypt for a decade now. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, a consistently high-minded rhetoric about the universal, cleansing power of democracy has been matched by a consistent abandonment of this principle when it became inconvenient. I saw the Bush "democracy agenda" U-turn to the old "stability agenda" when 2006 elections in Egypt demonstrated the electoral power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration react tepidly when the country raided the offices of American-funded democracy NGOs and threatened their employees with extended jail terms in 2012, and the ongoing talk about "democracy" even as the US continued to send financial aid to the country in the wake of the 2013 coup.

Elections in Egypt since 2011 have not led the country closer to any kind of national consensus – far from it. And in the current climate, the military's hand is growing stronger.

More American democracy talk, uncoupled by a willingness to take action based on it (and bear the consequences) isn't going to change that.

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