In his speech at the State Department on May 19, President Obama called Egypt essential to the future of democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa. As the largest and most influential Arab country, Egypt could in large part determine the course of the regional uprisings and the prospect of liberal democracy in the Islamic world. Yet violence against Copts, rising crime, and attacks on Israel’s Gaza border and its Cairo embassy are causing alarm about where “democracy” in Egypt is leading. And for good reason.
Democracy has not yet arrived in Egypt, however. It has been over three months since dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced from office. Egypt remains a military dictatorship. It will take time to build a democratic culture. Even after parliamentary and presidential elections, expected this fall, necessary reform of the police and security forces, changes in interfaith relations, and the abandonment of reflexive anti-Israel sentiment—even among many democrats—will take time and American support.
What is frustrating and disturbing is that, during this crucial transition period, there has been no significant difference in the way Egypt is run, or even in who runs it. Much of the old guard is still in power. The military arrests civilians, including peaceful protesters, and tries them in military courts. The media are pressured not to cover matters the military regards as sensitive. This all must stop if the upcoming election campaign is to be free and fair. A new law on political rights, announced May 19, is progress.
Many people in Egypt and abroad regard the upcoming elections with trepidation. They fear success at the polls by the well organized Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists. In his State Department address, President Obama answered the question that has hung over many of the uprisings in the Arab world: whether America could accept the results of democratic elections even if the victors were starkly different from the putatively secular leaders we have relied on in the past. Democrats are those who win and govern by the rules of a democratic system, the president said, not those who “restrict the rights of others, and to hold on power through coercion.” America, he went on, will work with “all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy.”
The president is right. It is important to distinguish between manifestations of Islam in a democratic society and antidemocratic behavior. Turkey, for example, is governed by a party with Islamic roots. A survey there in 2006 showed that, despite the widespread perception that the ranks of women wearing headscarves had grown, the number had actually declined. This might be because more women are leaving the home to work or engage in other activities—itself a sign of more freedom for women. Likewise, the announcement that Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, will run for president as an independent should not necessarily be cause for alarm. Egyptians consider him progressive. And his candidacy reveals the possibility of ferment and realignment within Egyptian politics and Islamic groups that was impossible under the old regime.
The bottom line is that Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy must not be allowed to stagnate. And for America to neglect or abandon Egypt—or Tunisia or Libya or Bahrain or Syria—would be a strategic and moral setback of the first order. That is why Washington needs a new ambassador to recast American relations with Cairo and make sure that democracy assistance is spent well and without interference from the Egyptian military government. In his speech, the president announced economic, trade, and investment initiatives and debt relief for “a democratic Egypt.” But in order for a democratic Egypt to emerge at all, there is much more work to be done, by Egyptians and Americans alike. There is no time to lose.