In a word, Egypt is a mess. But which democracies in history arose from order? Which tyrannical dictatorships ended their regimes with an epiphany in favor of freedom and gave their nation an orderly exit?
The hope and promise of a democratic awakening of the “Arab spring” that rocked Cairo and the Egyptian people in January 2011 has given way to the grim realities of a society long cultivated by tyranny. One year cannot right the course of democracy away from two generations of tyranny and corruption.
Make no mistake. The removal of President Mohammed Morsi on July 3 by Egyptian military generals was certainly not a democratic act, especially when delivered by the hands of essentially the same military that subjected Egypt to 60 years of despotism.
A coup or an act of people? Call it what you wish. Ending the tyranny of Hosni Mubarak was also less than democratic, but in the end similarly deserved. But with Mubarak’s military back in control, are the people of Egypt being duped? For Egyptians, one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule left a fear that time was running out for a course correction back to the road toward democracy. Iran taught the world what a difference just a few years can make in the post-revolutionary Islamist power grab that overcame Iran in the early ’80s.
In just 12 short months, true to his Islamist DNA, Morsi proceeded to lock himself in control, real democracy be damned. He interpreted his narrow electoral win as a mandate to do as he pleased. He paid heed only to his role as an Islamist ideologue in power rather than as the first democratically elected president of Egypt. He ran roughshod over any foundations for Egypt’s future. Morsi gave himself immunity from judicial review in November 2012 – a brazen move that put the wheels of mass protest back into action. He then appointed either hardcore Muslim Brotherhood faithful or even more extreme Jamaat Islamiya to coveted regional governorships. The constitutional process marginalized minorities and women, ending up an Islamist manifesto. His economic policies ushered in worsening food and fuel shortages, devalued currency and vanishing tourism. His foreign policy isolated Egypt from the free world and moved the nation into the inflammatory Islamist orbit of Hamas and Iran.
Rather than a founding father, he was the grim reaper of the revolution. Instead of speaking to all citizens, the constitution and new presidency spoke only to Islamists. At best, he implemented a majoritocracy. At worst, he set into motion an Islamist theocracy.
History shows that revolutions that arise from the ashes of tyranny will not easily deliver the will of the people. Generational institutions of democracy must be built from the ground up in progressive stages. The journey must begin with foundational principles that provide checks and balances to protect against tyranny. Those cannot only rest in elections. The rule of law and defense of the individual and minorities is essential or else the tyranny of dictatorship will be replaced by mob-ocracy.
Democracy for Egypt is a destination. Elections do not a democracy make.
Has Morsi’s Islamist power grab now given the authoritarian National Democratic Party (NDP)-dominated military the cover it needs to slide back to the era of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak? Sadly, the imprisonment and torture of Morsi’s hierarchy is now making that case.
The last week’s increasing violence, with hundreds killed and thousands injured, demonstrates that the Islamists are best at stoking violence and becoming martyrs and the military only knows the iron fist. What was to be a course correction can easily devolve into civil war or the old Darwinian battle between the two evils that the Middle East has known too well.
If there is anything that Egypt should learn from the last year, it’s that one year of an open society did more to set back the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist cohorts than 60 years of authoritarian measures by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak.
Egypt does not need hasty elections. It needs a strategic road map prodded by the free world for the next few years that ultimately aims toward civilian control of the military on top of a constitutional democracy that enshrines real freedom and equality for all. That was the dream of a better Egypt that brought millions to the streets against the Islamists on July 13 as well as against the NDP in January 2011. Only the United States can help them thread this needle in the critical coming few years.
Saad Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s genuinely liberal reformers, told Bari Weiss of the Wall Street Journal in February 2011 that holding elections in only six to 12 months was “not wise” and instead astutely recommended “putting them off for several years to allow alternative groups to mature.” A half-baked democracy is not only a recipe for failure but also can falsely taint for generations the taste of real freedom. It took only one year to prove Ibrahim right. The old adage applies that democracies based only in elections are no different from three wolves and a lamb voting on the dinner menu.
While the Brotherhood only received 25 percent of the vote the first time, it was a fait accompli for them to win in the runoff against Mohammed Shafik, Mubarak’s old Air Force commander. Secular non-Islamist groups were far more repressed than even the Islamists under the 60 years of NDP so the skill-sets, ideologies and know-how of forming liberal democratic groups were only yet beginning to hatch. In fact, if the one year of Brotherhood rule did anything well, it was the catalyst for the unification of disparate political groups into a mass of humanity that rejected Islamism.
However the rejection of Islamism does not a platform make for the economic, political and pluralistic future of Egypt. A rush too quick to correct the course will only swing the pendulum back to secular despotism.
It is imperative during this Revolution 2.0 that the Obama administration learns from the bevy of mistakes it made in 2011 and play an active public leadership role in helping the Egyptians shape their democracy. Threatening our aid to coerce the right actions now may be warranted, but it also was during Morsi’s reign in which President Obama and Ambassador Anne Patterson were oddly silent.
Egypt remains at a tipping point. Syria is proof of what can happen when a ruthless genocidal regime runs into a people demanding freedom. Egypt may be heading there. The U.S. cannot continue to sit out these changes and hand the direction of change to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” influenced by either the forces of theocracy, autocracy or corruption in the region, including Iran, Qatar, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
Many protesters balked at President Obama and Ambassador Patterson as being in league with their new oppressors – the Muslim Brotherhood. Sen. Ted Cruz noted, “The United States is – in both perception and reality – entrenched as the partner of a repressive, Islamist regime and the enemy of the secular, pro-democracy opposition.” The White House instead dug in its heels, bizarrely stating, “We do not take sides on political parties.”
In the end, the defeat of the Brotherhood will not be a reality until the ideology of Islamism is dissected by democratic groups in Egypt, a feat the NDP types could never do. The new government needs to ensure the right of nonviolent Brotherhood ideologues to exist under the banner of free speech. Historically, bad ideas are not defeated by making them illegal. Such was the case with Soviet communism. Similarly Islamism and the Brotherhood flourished when they were relegated to the underground without an open challenge to their ideals and principles. The new interim government needs to step back from unwarranted arrests and create a space to openly challenge and defeat Islamist ideas.
In our ADHD world, we have a tendency to want to wrap these situations up over a weekend and move on. The reality is tipping points come once in a millennium or less and they tip over years to decades not weeks to months. If we want real national security at home and abroad, we need to take sides inside Egypt, get our hands dirty and demonstrate to the people in the streets that the freedoms we have are worth the effort. Liberty needs nurturing if it is to have a chance in an environment whose recent memory has only seen tyranny.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is author of “A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith” and also president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix.