For sixty years, the military has been the dominant political force in Egyptian politics. The three presidents since 1956, Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, each assumed the presidency after leadership positions in the Egyptian Army and Air Force. For sixty years, the army has been the dominant force in an economy with three major sources of foreign currency: tourism, canal fees and sales of cotton. And for sixty years, the Egyptian leaders and their army backers have been at war with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Our attention has been riveted on the Arab Spring, and on events in Egypt in particular, for the past two years. And through this time, we have watched through the lens of our own interpretation of events, of our own essential role, and of our own understanding of politics and democracy. Even as myriad other nations are making the long and difficult transition to popular democracy—Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Rwanda come to mine—we embraced the Arab Spring as our own as we marveled at the role that Twitter and Facebook played, and saw validation of our essential role in those events as Arab participants on the street gathered around our reporters, as if to bring us into their struggle.
It was the new American triumphalism. These events mattered because we were part of them. Our technology was an enabling force. And the aspirations of those battling on the ground centered around our core values. Freedom and liberty were at stake. It was an easy narrative and an easy thrill.
Two years ago, in the middle of it all, President Obama called then-President Mubarak to lay down the American marker. He warned Mubarak “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters.” “The United States,” he reportedly said “will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people.” As later reported, Mubarak admonished Obama in the same call, “You don’t understand this part of the world. You’re young.”
As in Syria, President Obama has come to learn, one hopes, that words are cheap. As we have watched the Arab Spring founder, we have learned reluctantly that sectarian divisions—be they of clan, tribe, nationality or religion—run far deeper than the commitments to democratic values. Indeed, as we watched events transpire in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated that fact by its deeds, regardless of its words.
Democracy suited the Muslim Brotherhood at this moment in Egypt. With a swift migration from authoritarian rule to a democratic process, those who are most organized on the ground have the advantage. Yet, if anything, the results in the 2012 Egyptian presidential election demonstrated the divisions in the Egyptian electorate, as Muhammad Morsi won a slim majority in the final round of voting 52% to 48%. With voter turnout of only 52%, President Morsi took office with the active endorsement of just 27% of the Egyptian electorate.
Against that backdrop, Morsi moved ahead to take on those who would impeded his agenda and limit the rights to rule that the Brotherhood had worked for so long to win. Those who argued that his narrow victory should have led him to be more inclusive of minority rights and interests ignored the practical realities of democracy. We talk of the importance of minority rights, and our constitutional structure provides significant guarantees in that regard, but that is not the norm. Fundamentally, democracy is a process for selecting leaders, but it does not suggest or guarantee that such elected leaders will either embrace the broader principals of democracy or the rights of those who oppose them. It is a system for the allocation of power, and if successful, the transition of power.
When Morsi largely ignored those who advocated for minority rights, I was reminded of the famous conversation between the newly elected George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They had just won the contested 2000 presidential election through a 5-4 Supreme Court and asked each other if the narrowness of and questions surrounding their victory make them chart a centrist course and moderate their conservative agenda? No, they decided, “full speed ahead.” They had won, and in a democracy that is what matters.
Accordingly, Morsi moved forward aggressively to take on the power of both the Egyptian judiciary and the army. Both were bastions of the ousted regime, though both still had significant power and popularity across the now divided electorate. In particular, the army retained significant power over the economy, ranging from jobs within the industries it controlled to the ability to set prices for gasoline and fuel.
Morsi’s disregard for the realities of popular opinion peaked when, less than a half a year into his term, he pushed through a new constitution. Over the objections of opposition political parties and leaders, the document was drafted by a constitutional assembly largely comprising his Islamist allies. Just six months to the day since his election, the new constitution was approved through a public referendum by 64% of the voters. Turnout was 33%, therefore the new constitution was actively endorsed by 21% of the Egyptian electorate.
Morsi read President Obama well. Americans have a tendency to embrace political leaders who we can identify with. When Yuri Andropov became head of the Soviet Union, the press largely ignored his role in the crushing of anti-Soviet uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and focused instead on his preferences for Johnnie Walker scotch and Dave Brubeck. So too the press coverage of Morsi focused less on the core values and aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood than on his time at the University of Southern California. After all, what is not to like about a man who ends an interview “Go Trojan!” He could just as well have said “Hi mom!”
Every action Morsi took was legal and within the rules. But more to the point, he understood that to keep American support required that the continue to utter the shibboleths about reverence for democracy and swore fealty to Egypt’s international obligations (read: peace treaty with Israel).
And so he did. But every step of the way, as America cast a blind eye, Morsi was worked to eliminate opposition and to change the rules to tilt the playing field toward his central objective: To assure the continuation in power of the Muslim Brotherhood and steer Egypt toward its Islamist path.
And this is the democratic way. Democracy is a legal structure for the allocation of political power without force. But those who win do what they can to keep power, and those who lose do what they can to get it back. There was ample evidence of that this week as Republicans in North Carolina acted swiftly in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning of portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to pass new election laws that will have the effect of suppressing the participation of voters viewed as less likely to vote Republican.
The events in Egypt are tragic. But as we debate whether we should withhold our foreign aid or not, whether this is a coup or not, and whether or not Morsi must be reinstated, we should step back and recognize that these are local events at play, with a long history, and it is not about us. People in and out of Egypt, on every side, blame America for supporting the other side. Those who believe the action by General Sisi was a coup suggest that he would not have acted without American support. Those who believe Morsi was usurping the rights of the majority of Egyptian suggest that Obama gave him the go ahead as a quid pro quo for keeping the Israeli treaty in place.
The path to democracy is a struggle, and perhaps it is best achieved when Americans turn off their smart phones and pay a little less attention. We think that our participation is critical: our funding, our technology, our sanctioning what is acceptable and what is not. But the evidence may suggest otherwise. Democratization in Myanmar has been astonishing to watch as it progresses along a slow path. Somehow, the generals there have decided to slowly cede power. And that has been the path in country after country over the past three decades. After years of turmoil, the evolution in Rwanda has been equally surprising, even (or perhaps because) that country has limited media access.
In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps Egypt could benefit from a bit of benign neglect, as far as its American audience is concerned. The Egyptians have to deal with each other and find their own path forward. Egypt does not have the Sunni-Shia split that threatens so many countries in the region, as its population is barely 1% Shia. Instead, Egypt is challenged by the tension between Islamists and secularists, which is perhaps as difficult to reconcile, as at its core the secularism so visible in Tahrir Square in 2011 is anathema to political Islam.
And any president of Egypt has to make peace with, or at least accept the reality of the power of the military and the role of the courts, as the other loci of power in that nation. Apparently, Morsi made a terrible misjudgment about his own power, and now he and the Egyptian people are paying a terrible price. But that is not necessarily a reason that America should do more. It may be a reason we should do less.