Analyst: Egypt Should Have Waited for Elections

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

What’s your take on what’s happening in Egypt right now?

Well, I’m pessimistic about what’s happening right now. It seems to me that you have a precedent of the military coming in and ousting an elected government. No matter how bad the government was, that’s a bad precedent for democracy. Secondly, if through this action what you get is a Muslim Brotherhood that is pressured by the state and is either not allowed or not willing to participate itself in the political process, you just can’t have an inclusive democracy.

So would you say that it would have been preferable for the Egyptians to wait for the elections rather than have the military stage a coup?

Yes, I would say that. They should have waited for the parliamentary elections; that would have been better for democracy. You’ll find many Egyptians that will say I’m an idiot, that I don’t understand that the Brotherhood was entrenching itself to such an extent that the elections would have been useless. But in my reading of the Egyptian situation I hadn’t seen the Brotherhood crossing that line yet where they were so monopolizing power, that the elections would have been a sham.

Let’s examine the nature of the transition itself as compared to others we’ve seen. In your piece The Year the Arab Spring Went Bad, you wrote that democratic transitions are particularly tough in this region. Can you explain why you think this is so?

First off, I think we should banish the assumption that the natural end state of the fall of an authoritarian government is democracy. We were kind of spoiled by the results of transitions in Eastern Europe and in the democratic wave in Latin America and East Asia in the 80’s and 90’s. Many of those transitions did end up in democratic results, so we came to think that democracy was the default position for a transition from authoritarianism.

So why is it harder in this region? I think there are two kinds of cleavages that exist in Arab countries that make stable democratic transitions particularly difficult. The first kind of cleavage is ethnic and sectarian – whether it be the competing identities of Kurds and Arabs or Sunnis and Shiites or Muslims and Christians. In a place like Syria or Iraq where those identities are very salient, it’s hard to have a democratic transition because first elections tend to end up being a sectarian/ethnic census. Minorities don’t trust majorities and majorities come to loathe minorities who have held power over them. Politics becomes an all or nothing game, where compromise is very hard to achieve.

The second kind of cleavage is ideological. People have to ask whether they want an Islamist government, as was the case for the Muslim Brotherhood before its fall in Egypt, or a more secular one. This kind of ideological fight is relevant not just in Egypt but also across the Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq and also in non-Arab countries like Turkey and Iran. When societies are characterized by severe identity and ideological cleavages, the spirit of compromise and toleration that makes democracy work is hard to come by.

Given this, and acknowledging that U.S. foreign policy has historically been to support and promote democracy around the world, what do you think the U.S. role is in Egypt and in the Middle East?

I think the United States should be a lot less involved in the Middle East than it has been in the last 10 years or so. But that doesn’t mean a complete withdrawal or an isolationist policy in the Middle East. We have a relationship with Egypt that goes back to the peace treaty with Israel. We give the Egyptian military $1.5 billion a year in military aid. Of course we’re going to have a relationship with Egypt. But the idea that we can somehow micromanage Egyptian politics is really wrong. I think we should deal with the transitional Egyptian government, and governments that come after it, on the basis of what they do in foreign policy, not on their domestic political basis. If they cooperate with us on important foreign policy issues, we should cooperate with them.

So what do you see as a path forward for Egypt? What should come next?

I think if what you want is a democratic solution in Egypt, you already know what ideally should happen. The military should step away. There should be free and fair elections. The Muslim Brotherhood should participate. The judiciary should oversee the elections. But that’s not just the ideal solution – that’s an idealist solution because in fact the judiciary is part of the political game in Egypt. It’s staffed largely by people appointed by the old regime. The army is a political player too; it’s not a neutral arbiter that stands outside the gate. The Muslim Brotherhood will have a hard time getting back in the political game after their recent experience and their rejection of the current government. And so I think that the ideal solution in Egypt is one that is not politically practical in the near future.