Egypt’s military leaders issued a constitutional decree Sunday that gave the armed forces sweeping powers and degraded the presidency to a subservient role, as the Muslim Brotherhood declared that its candidate had won the country’s presidential runoff election.
The bold assertion of power by the ruling generals followed months in which they had promised to cede authority to a new civilian government by the end of June. Instead, activists and political analysts said, the generals’ move marked the start of a military dictatorship, a sharp reversal from the promise of Egypt’s popular revolt last year.
If you can’t figure out whom to root for, you’re not alone. If “democracy” entails rule by the Muslim Brotherhood, is that really a step toward a freer, more tolerant Egypt? Well, the Brotherhood is mouthing the right words, promising a secular, modern government. It would be helpful to know what they mean by these catchphrases.
Should we quietly cheer the Egyptian military strongman routine, and accept its promises to draft a new constitution in the next few months? It seems that would put us right back to the Hosni Mubarak days, with simply a different leadership atop an authoritarian government making promises to democratize.
Had we used the last year to establish a relationship and deepen our understanding of the players and made clear we would condition aid on democratic progress, we would be, perhaps, in a better spot. Now we are, yet again, bystanders.
Rather than trying to pick sides, maybe we need to lay down some principles. Egypt is going to choose its path, but in order to enjoy a warm relationship with the United States, any government will need to affirm the peace treaty with Israel and show progress in religious and ethnic tolerance and increased political rights. We can cajole and condition aid and try some real diplomatic outreach, getting a bead on the players and their predilections.
President Obama’s ineptitude and lack of a coherent response to the Arab Spring are well known. But we should have realistic expectations about our ability to influence events. It may take years or decades for Egypt to find its way. In the meantime, the United States can at least make clear that democracy takes more than elections.