The Trouble With Democracy, From Cairo to Johannesburg

With one party in control and the others active but marginalized, Egypt's future is closely coming to resemble its past.

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Anti-Morsi protesters gather on a blocked road leading to the presidential palace in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

The return of protests, tanks and death to the streets of Cairo this week is harrowing. So is the power of the rampant conspiracy theories that cause Muslim Brotherhood members and their secular opponents to sincerely believe they are defending Egypt's revolution. Both sides are behaving abominably.

Criticisms of President Mohamed Morsi's foolish and unnecessary power grab and rushed constitutional process are legitimate. So are complaints that the country's secular opposition is poorly organized, lacks majority support and refuses to compromise.

Barring a surprising change in direction, Egypt's experiment with democracy is headed toward failure.

The country's flawed constitution will likely be ratified in a referendum on Dec. 15. A frustrated and distrustful opposition will boycott subsequent parliamentary elections. Morsi will lead a "soft authoritarian" government similar to that of former President Hosni Mubarak. Small opposition parties will exist, but the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance of the state, politics and society will never be in doubt.

U.S. officials -- ever eager for stability in the Middle East -- will turn a blind eye and establish a "working relationship" with Morsi.

"I think the impulse of most American administrations is to show up in an Arab country and say, 'Take me to your leader,' " Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor and leading expert on Egypt, told me in a bleak interview today. "I don't think we have many alternatives. The United States is not in the position to back a military coup or the opposition."

Brown is correct. Yes, the United States has some economic leverage in Cairo, but in general America remains radioactive in post-Mubarak Egypt. After 40 years of the United States backing Egyptian strongmen who made peace with Israel, Washington is hugely mistrusted.

A September 2012 Gallup Poll found that 82 percent of Egyptians opposed the country's government accepting any economic aid from the United States. By comparison, 42 percent of Egyptians surveyed -- roughly half that number -- opposed the country's peace treaty with Israel.

Let me be blunt to those who think more "American leadership" is the answer. A U.S.-backed military coup -- which it is doubtful the United States could engineer -- would radicalize Islamists across the region and be an enormous gift to al Qaeda. Similarly, if Washington openly backs the country's secular opposition, those opponents will be viewed as American stooges and lose popular support.

"A much more effective strategy for the United States is to call for a dialogue between Mursi's government and the opposition behind closed doors," said Dalia Mogahed, the American scholar who conducted the Gallup survey. "The U.S. coming out publicly on the side of the opposition will be used against them."

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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