Egypt: It's Not a Democracy, but It's Not Nothing, Either

Warning: The following isn't nice.

The liberal moaning and wailing has begun.  The circumstances of the referendum on Egypt's new constitution, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and what appears to be the impending crackdown on Hamas have produced calls for "inclusion" and "democratic norms," and the denunciation of the military-backed government.  TIME Magazine intones, "Egyptians are Voting Away their Freedom."  The Washington Post called for a suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt over its "bogus democracy." 

That's a rather high hand.  What if Egypt doesn't have a "bogus democracy," but an insurgency that needs redress?  What if, to Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood resembles the Taliban more than it does the Democratic Party of the United States?  Remember, the Taliban wasn't entirely unwelcome in Afghanistan in the chaos of the Russian withdrawal.  What if Egyptians are driven by the specter of Libyan militias, Iraqi dissolution, Syrian civil war, and the wreckage produced by a single year of Muslim Brotherhood rule?  What if Egyptians value perceived security over what they understand about democracy?

If they're wrong or benighted, at a minimum it helps to see their context, rather than arrogantly trying and failing to replace it with our own.  This is why "nation-building" fails.

The magic word "democracy" falls out of the mouths of pundits.  AEI's Danielle Pletka simply dismissed the referendum as the end of Egypt's democratic experiment.  Michelle Dunne, Senior Associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment, plowed through the laundry list:

There is a real danger that international players will lend legitimacy to a flawed and undemocratic process. They risk playing into the Egyptian transitional government's efforts to focus attention on the technicalities of the post-coup political road map while diverting notice from a deeply troubling context -- widespread unrest, the recent declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt's largest political group) as a terrorist organization, escalating repression of secular dissidents, a draft constitution that gives the military broad powers, a drafting process that largely excluded Islamists, effectively no freedom for those who would campaign against passage of the referendum. And the likelihood of ongoing protests during the referendum, as well as of violent attacks against government targets, is high.

Her colleague, Shadi Hamid in Doha, pointed to more than 25 conversations between Gen. Sissi in Cairo and Defense Secretary Hagel:

The U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive... With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region's more brutal, repressive regimes to be "democratic." Although there are certainly competitors -- Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind -- it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground.

It is unclear how "inclusive" anyone should be of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose credo is "Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and dying in the way of Allah is the highest of our aspirations."

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.  The Brotherhood is stoking riots, blowing things up, and expecting/hoping to bring a heavy Egyptian police response down on its people in the streets -- remember that part about jihad and dying.  This is a favorite tactic of Hamas.  They fire rockets into Israeli towns, aiming at houses, schools, and buses.  When retaliation finally ensues, Hamas (and much of the rest of the world) blames Israel.

This is not the debt ceiling debate; it is politics as a blood sport, with emphasis on blood.  What we call "partisan rancor" can get you killed, and in that context, a "democratic election" cannot take place.  A winner-take-all referendum is the likely outcome, and everyone understands what losing means.  The disastrous 2006 Hamas/Fatah election in Gaza led directly to the short and brutal Palestinian civil war.  No election has taken place in Gaza or on the West Bank, because both sides fear the result.

Now consider Hamid's throwaway mention of "Israel-Palestine" as a competitor to Egypt as a "brutal repressive regime."

There is no such place as "Israel-Palestine."  Israel is a free and democratic country.  It has a free press, an aggressively independent judiciary, multiple political parties, a track record of elections on time and with changes in parties at the helm, open internet access, property rights, civil rights, and personal rights including gay marriage.  The Palestinian Authority, after 20-plus years of governing, has no such attributes.  The government is years late on both legislative and presidential elections.  Multiple security forces are controlled by political parties or individuals.  There is no independent judiciary, no financial transparency (even the EU was shocked recently when it discovered in an audit the extent of the theft of European aid money by the PA), no rule of law, no civil rights, and no free press.

This is why there is no Israeli-Palestinian "peace."  One side is bound by its people; the other is not.  A democracy would consider itself further bound by norms that a thuggish kleptocracy would not.  A treaty between them would not command equal allegiance, hence Israel keeps looking for additional mechanisms that would keep it self-reliant rather than relying on either the Palestinians or the "international community."  The Palestinian Authority keeps looking for ways to avoid a deal that will result in another Palestinian civil war.

Policy wonks, enamored as they are of their own democratic norms, want everyone to play by the same rules that have worked so well for us.  But when they look at Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority, none has the prerequisites for a democratic system, and none is out of the "you kill me, or I'll kill you" stage of political discourse.  There is, most importantly, no concept of "the loyal opposition," and the assurance of multiple elections so that if you lose this time you might win later. 

It isn't nice to say so, but our norms don't apply.  They won't be democratic, and we can't make them.  So between stability produced by the heavy hand of a secular government and the chaos that has attended the demise of such governments elsewhere, it won't be surprising if Egyptians vote for the constitution and support the al Sissi government.  The best the U.S. can do in that case is help ensure that Egyptians continue to get chances to register their views periodically while working to tame the baser instincts of their leadership. 

It's not much, but for Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, it beats what they've got.

Warning: The following isn't nice.

The liberal moaning and wailing has begun.  The circumstances of the referendum on Egypt's new constitution, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and what appears to be the impending crackdown on Hamas have produced calls for "inclusion" and "democratic norms," and the denunciation of the military-backed government.  TIME Magazine intones, "Egyptians are Voting Away their Freedom."  The Washington Post called for a suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt over its "bogus democracy." 

That's a rather high hand.  What if Egypt doesn't have a "bogus democracy," but an insurgency that needs redress?  What if, to Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood resembles the Taliban more than it does the Democratic Party of the United States?  Remember, the Taliban wasn't entirely unwelcome in Afghanistan in the chaos of the Russian withdrawal.  What if Egyptians are driven by the specter of Libyan militias, Iraqi dissolution, Syrian civil war, and the wreckage produced by a single year of Muslim Brotherhood rule?  What if Egyptians value perceived security over what they understand about democracy?

If they're wrong or benighted, at a minimum it helps to see their context, rather than arrogantly trying and failing to replace it with our own.  This is why "nation-building" fails.

The magic word "democracy" falls out of the mouths of pundits.  AEI's Danielle Pletka simply dismissed the referendum as the end of Egypt's democratic experiment.  Michelle Dunne, Senior Associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment, plowed through the laundry list:

There is a real danger that international players will lend legitimacy to a flawed and undemocratic process. They risk playing into the Egyptian transitional government's efforts to focus attention on the technicalities of the post-coup political road map while diverting notice from a deeply troubling context -- widespread unrest, the recent declaration of the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt's largest political group) as a terrorist organization, escalating repression of secular dissidents, a draft constitution that gives the military broad powers, a drafting process that largely excluded Islamists, effectively no freedom for those who would campaign against passage of the referendum. And the likelihood of ongoing protests during the referendum, as well as of violent attacks against government targets, is high.

Her colleague, Shadi Hamid in Doha, pointed to more than 25 conversations between Gen. Sissi in Cairo and Defense Secretary Hagel:

The U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive... With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region's more brutal, repressive regimes to be "democratic." Although there are certainly competitors -- Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind -- it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground.

It is unclear how "inclusive" anyone should be of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose credo is "Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and dying in the way of Allah is the highest of our aspirations."

Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.  The Brotherhood is stoking riots, blowing things up, and expecting/hoping to bring a heavy Egyptian police response down on its people in the streets -- remember that part about jihad and dying.  This is a favorite tactic of Hamas.  They fire rockets into Israeli towns, aiming at houses, schools, and buses.  When retaliation finally ensues, Hamas (and much of the rest of the world) blames Israel.

This is not the debt ceiling debate; it is politics as a blood sport, with emphasis on blood.  What we call "partisan rancor" can get you killed, and in that context, a "democratic election" cannot take place.  A winner-take-all referendum is the likely outcome, and everyone understands what losing means.  The disastrous 2006 Hamas/Fatah election in Gaza led directly to the short and brutal Palestinian civil war.  No election has taken place in Gaza or on the West Bank, because both sides fear the result.

Now consider Hamid's throwaway mention of "Israel-Palestine" as a competitor to Egypt as a "brutal repressive regime."

There is no such place as "Israel-Palestine."  Israel is a free and democratic country.  It has a free press, an aggressively independent judiciary, multiple political parties, a track record of elections on time and with changes in parties at the helm, open internet access, property rights, civil rights, and personal rights including gay marriage.  The Palestinian Authority, after 20-plus years of governing, has no such attributes.  The government is years late on both legislative and presidential elections.  Multiple security forces are controlled by political parties or individuals.  There is no independent judiciary, no financial transparency (even the EU was shocked recently when it discovered in an audit the extent of the theft of European aid money by the PA), no rule of law, no civil rights, and no free press.

This is why there is no Israeli-Palestinian "peace."  One side is bound by its people; the other is not.  A democracy would consider itself further bound by norms that a thuggish kleptocracy would not.  A treaty between them would not command equal allegiance, hence Israel keeps looking for additional mechanisms that would keep it self-reliant rather than relying on either the Palestinians or the "international community."  The Palestinian Authority keeps looking for ways to avoid a deal that will result in another Palestinian civil war.

Policy wonks, enamored as they are of their own democratic norms, want everyone to play by the same rules that have worked so well for us.  But when they look at Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority, none has the prerequisites for a democratic system, and none is out of the "you kill me, or I'll kill you" stage of political discourse.  There is, most importantly, no concept of "the loyal opposition," and the assurance of multiple elections so that if you lose this time you might win later. 

It isn't nice to say so, but our norms don't apply.  They won't be democratic, and we can't make them.  So between stability produced by the heavy hand of a secular government and the chaos that has attended the demise of such governments elsewhere, it won't be surprising if Egyptians vote for the constitution and support the al Sissi government.  The best the U.S. can do in that case is help ensure that Egyptians continue to get chances to register their views periodically while working to tame the baser instincts of their leadership. 

It's not much, but for Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, it beats what they've got.