Why Democracy in Egypt Still Matters

Three years after the hopeful scenes of the Arab Spring, the situation in places like Syria and Libya looks more like a tragic mess. The most dramatic reversal of fortune, perhaps, is in Egypt, whose Tahrir (Freedom) Square came to symbolize the hopes of 2011. Egypt under longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was an anchor of stability in the region, in large part because of its close ties to Washington and its historic peace treaty with Israel. But Egypt today is in turmoil: Its third post-revolutionary government, installed by the military, is cracking down on basic rights while facing an upsurge in violence from Islamist militants, an economic crisis and vicious anti-Americanism stoked by the media. The decimated Muslim Brotherhood rejects any hint of compromise and talks to its followers of martyrdom. Many outside analysts worry that the zero-sum confrontation now underway in Egypt is dragging the country over a cliff into further violence.

In the face of these troubling developments, some are ready to conclude that Egypt “isn’t ready” for democracy, or that the Arab Spring was just an opening for extremists to pursue an “Islamist winter.” It’s understandable why American Jews in particular wonder if Egypt’s tumultuous politics spell trouble for Israel, and ask whether the old Egyptian regime wasn’t better for stability. But the days of one-man rule in Egypt are gone forever. The future of the Middle East is now up for grabs—a future that matters deeply to both Israel and the United States—and real stability will come only from resisting the urge to clamp down.

For a half-century, the United States worked with a set of regional powers—mainly Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—to protect a stable regional order. But since Mubarak’s fall, Washington policy has been on a roller coaster of its own. The one consistent element of Washington’s approach has been to stay engaged with Egypt and work with whoever is in power. There’s a simple reason for that: The United States has strong interests in Egypt, no matter who is in charge of the country. Even if the United States didn’t import Arab oil anymore, Egypt’s Suez Canal would still be a vital lifeline. The U.S.-Egypt security partnership is valuable for targeting violent extremists and containing Iran. U.S.-Egyptian-Israeli cooperation is crucial to combating terrorists along the Sinai border and from the Gaza Strip. And Egypt’s peace with Israel is a cornerstone of regional—not to mention Israeli—security.

But the old prescriptions for regional stability are not going to work with a new generation. The Egyptian revolution, like the other Arab uprisings, was sparked by a rising young population, empowered by education and technology but constrained by corruption, inequality and leaders who didn’t listen. Nearly two-thirds of Egyptians are now under 30. They learned in school that their nation was a post-colonial leader alongside Indonesia and India, but then they saw how young Indonesians and Indians were thriving in a world of open markets and open societies, while Egypt was left behind. In 2011, they rose up to try and join that world, which my colleague Robert Kagan calls “The World America Made.”

Since then, Egyptians have overthrown three successive leaderships in attempts to bring the change they seek. Each had tried to impose on Egypt a political system that would privilege his allies and contain or exclude his enemies. None has succeeded. Thirty-year dictator Mubarak resigned when his army refused to put down mass protests with brute force. His successor, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, was forced by public pressure to respect the outcome of free presidential balloting that elected the military’s worst nightmare—a leader from the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood. That Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, declared his actions above judicial review and pushed through a constitution written almost exclusively by Islamists. He faced angry mass demonstrations last summer and was ousted by a military coup on July 3.

The crackdown since then has been brutal. With more than 2,000 dead and 20,000 in jail, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El Sisi now presides over an Egypt more repressive than that of Mubarak. And yet many Egyptians who supported the revolution in 2011 now support El Sisi for president, hoping he can bring security and stability after three years of chaos.

The United States wants Egyptian stability too—the question is how to get there. El Sisi and his allies see themselves locked in an existential battle with the Muslim Brotherhood for control of the country; they seek U.S. support for a crackdown that includes a draconian anti-protest law and arrests of journalists and peaceful political dissenters. The Egyptian government deserves support in combating terrorist violence, but it must also learn from the failures of Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi that Egyptians will no longer submit to being ruled through repression by a single man or movement.

Many Israeli analysts I talk to argue that El Sisi can get Egypt under control if given a chance—but then, they said the same about Mubarak. To marginalize the extremists and stabilize the country, Egypt’s current leaders must allow greater freedom and find a way to bring more of Egypt’s diverse population—Islamists, secularists and Christians; young activists and entrepreneurs; textile workers and farmers—into new governing institutions.

The Obama Administration’s emphasis on stability is understandable, and so is Israel’s; both need a government of Egypt that can be an effective partner in regional security. But only an open, pluralist system will bring Egyptians together to make the big decisions the country needs and to reform its politics and economics. Egypt’s youth may not love the United States or Israel, but they want their nation to be part of the globalized world these two countries exemplify. Washington’s task is to stay aligned with that vision for Egypt—one that will advance stability, security and U.S. interests.

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