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.

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."

The Democracy ReportThe only small cause for hope is that Egypt's struggles are not unprecedented. Other countries have undergone agonizing and turbulent transitions as well. Thomas Carothers, an expert on transitions to democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that what is occurring today in Egypt is typical when a long-disenfranchised group gains power. Distrustful and insular after years of struggles, it is often reluctant to share power and still views itself as deeply vulnerable.

Carothers said Egypt's struggle mirrors the difficult transition still under way in Bolivia. Seven years after Evo Morales was elected that country's first president of indigenous descent, a tense "fundamental rebalancing of political power" is still playing out in Bolivia. The country's traditional elite and the indigenous movement still struggle to trust each other and share power. Bigoted arguments that democracy does not work in the Arab world do not apply in Egypt.

"There is nothing particularly Arab about what is happening," Carothers said. "It's not an Islamist issue, per se."

There is another international comparison that should give the Brotherhood pause, according to Carothers. South Africa's African National Congress gained a monopoly on power after the country's first post-apartheid elections in 1994. With no viable opposition, the ANC grew increasingly corrupt as opportunistic figures flocked to the only patronage show in town.

"The party just became a self-sustaining machine," Carothers said. "People start joining your party out of sheer opportunism."

That may not matter to the Brotherhood. Its fear of being forced from power it has finally attained it may lead it to become the kind of governing party its members once loathed.

The stark picture painted by Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, in this excellent piece in Foreign Policy this week, may prove to be true. There may be no common vision in Egypt, as Humid argues; there may be no consensus on what the Egyptian nation should be.

If there is a common ground, the surest way to reach it is for there to be more democracy in Egypt, not less. Yes, the flawed draft constitution is likely to be ratified on Dec. 15. But the opposition should not boycott the vote or subsequent legislative elections. In a best-case scenario, the "no" vote could reach as high as 30 percent, according to Brown. The opposition could then run in subsequent legislative elections. It would not win a majority, but perhaps enough seats to be a viable opposition to the Brotherhood. Two groups that loathe each other would be forced to sit in Parliament together. Time and a desire to win elections might make them compromise and save Egypt's fading chances at democracy.

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