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American Freedom and Egypt's Coup

The courts dissolved one house of parliament and rejected the electoral law, requiring postponement of reconstituting it. The president rushed through a draft constitution over liberal objections. Sixteen million Egyptians have participated in protests against their government. Police announced their unwillingness to protect government and Muslim Brotherhood locations. Military leaders put in place by President Mohamed Morsy gave him an ultimatum to accede to protesters’ demands and have begun taking control of the media, ostensibly on behalf of “the people.” Egyptians fear democracy so recently won is slipping from their grasp, and they are right.

But -- especially on the holiday commemorating their own freedoms -- Americans should not cheer the military’s return to power in Egypt. Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has judiciously pointed out parallels between the 1952 coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power and the expedient support Egyptian liberals are now giving military intervention. The Egyptian military is not a neutral arbiter; it spent four decades repressing the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a sad assertion of unelected power in a society struggling to establish the rules, institutions, and practices of democracy. 

Morsy is not wrong to insist that he was legitimately elected and that his opponents are seeking to achieve by mob rule what they did not win at the ballot box. That many of Morsy’s problems are of his own making and that he has governed badly do not refute his claims. He did not control the courts disbanding the lower house of parliament; his urgency to redraft the constitution is understandable given its importance for bringing forward elections. He submitted the draft constitution to a public referendum, and it passed. He is working in an environment in which the “deep state” is threatened by both transparency and the rule of law. He has not had an organized opposition or a definable leader to work with. He was not his party’s actual candidate for president (recall he was dubbed the “spare tire,” when the electoral commission disqualified 10 candidates), so he may have difficulty keeping loyalty in his own ranks. That he hasn’t been brave enough to tackle Egypt’s economic crisis without a legislature to share the blame does not make him unique in the annals of governance.

A recent, extensive Zogby poll in Egypt concluded that: 

  • The two main Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Nour Party) appear to have the confidence of just under 30 percent of Egyptian adults.
  • The major opposition groups (the National Salvation Front and the April 6th Youth Movement) combined have a somewhat larger support base, claiming the confidence of almost 35 percent of the adult population, while the remaining almost 40 percent of the population appears to have no confidence in either the government or any of the political parties. They are a “disaffected plurality."

This is not a country coming together. Egypt is a deeply divided society with low levels of social trust (as is common for countries emerging from authoritarianism). 

An elected president is now being forced by unelected military leaders to schedule early elections -- not to create a parliament, but to bring in a different president. The military’s plan is reportedly to dismiss the Egyptian Constitution, dismiss the parliament, force the president from office, and appoint the chief justice interim head of state. Mohamed ElBaradei, the anointed liberal leader, pulled out of the 2012 presidential election after failing to get traction. The military’s intervention has established it as the rule-setter despite the fact that it did little to set meaningful and politically salient rules when it held power a mere 13 months ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has achieved the hat trick of alienating all factions in Egypt. It neither defended nor pushed out Hosni Mubarak, thereby earning the embitterment of both the “deep state” that had been America’s ally for 30 years and liberals who agitated against it; gave the military a pass during the 18 months of its “caretaking” when policy choices and governance rules might have been established; waived congressional concerns limiting U.S. foreign aid; gave the elected government too little support to have influence; was largely silent during a crackdown on nongovernmental groups; and now condescendingly suggests Egyptians would do better to politically organize than protest.

That the Obama administration has managed to minimize U.S. influence at a crucial time in Egypt’s democratic transition is, sadly, predictable. What should have been done to help Egypt avoid this precipice?

1. Realize these guys are amateurs. There is a tendency now to see the past two years as an inevitable descent into authoritarianism, the carrying out of a plan by the Muslim Brotherhood to ensure “one man, one vote, one time.” And that may be true. The Brotherhood did double back on numerous promises to share power, including not to run a candidate for the presidency, given its dominance of the legislature. Its prospects are doubtful of retaining power at the ballot box; there has been a precipitous drop in Brotherhood popularity during its governance. But it’s also at least as likely that the Brotherhood is lurching from crisis to crisis without the experience or knowledge to make better choices. Societies emerging from authoritarianism tend not to have a surfeit of capable political leaders, and they have no experience building national political consensus. The United States should be helping a broad swath of potential leaders build the skills to govern. Egypt hasn’t made that easy with the crackdown on NGOs, but that’s all the more reason to have a loud, public defense of civil society and the building blocks of free societies.

2. Help the government end subsidies. Egypt’s crisis is at least as much an economic as a political one. The Egyptian government has been teetering on the brink of default, unable to qualify for IMF support because of the extensive government subsidies put in place 60 years ago and that the Morsy government hasn’t been brave enough to curtail. Qatar and Libya are all that stands between Egyptian reserves and inability to pay the bills. Government debt has grown by 25 percent in two years. The stock market is down 14 percent on the year, sure to fall further. Fifty percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. Tourism has fallen off precipitously, and Morsy’s decision to appoint as governor in Luxor someone involved in the 1997 killing of tourists there will further worry potential travelers. The IMF (rightly) insists on an austerity program of higher taxes and reduced government subsidies, which the Morsy government hasn’t enacted. Morsy is right to fear public outrage, but wrong not to use his political pulpit to build public understanding and support for sensible economic policies -- which hardly makes them unique among even comfortably established democracies.

The United States provides $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance. Reversing that ratio would send a powerful signal to the people of Egypt about U.S. interest in their success. Even more importantly, the U.S. government should be helping Egyptians understand the need for reduced subsidies, the importance of the government freeing up business, and the essential contribution that transparency and the rule of law can make. Needless to say, the United States is hardly in a strong position to do so, given its own debt and recent trend toward crony capitalism. Still, America should evangelize the value of vibrant economies and build a foreign assistance program that matches its success with the projects it supports. The United States could help provide the political cover for Egypt’s government to take unpopular decisions, but it has not.

3. Emphasize checks and balances. A crucial element of free societies is competing power centers that limit the reach of the executive -- and everyone else. Where was the U.S. government when Morsy moved against the courts? As in Pakistan, the United States makes excuses for “stability” that it would never tolerate in its own society. America needs to get into the business of advocating vibrant, peaceful contestation among parts of society, for that is the basis of building the civic virtue of political tolerance and limited government.

4. Tie aid. Obama piously claims his administration takes respect for democracy and the rule of law into account in making decisions about U.S. aid to Egypt. As journalist Eli Lake has pointed out, this is laughably false. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, waived congressional restrictions designed to hold Egypt’s leaders accountable. The U.S. Congress has a much better record than the president at putting into place penalties for countries that don’t respect minority rights, religious freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Rather than skirt them, the administration should be working with Congress to strengthen restrictions -- it can then have the pleasure of blaming Congress, a strategy that historically works to great success in trade talks.

5. Grow talent. Part of the difficulty for societies transitioning to democracy is that politicians are thrust into responsibilities far greater than their experience may encompass. Even in repressive societies, there are leaders, whether they lead religious communities, businesses, dissident groups, or local governments. A major part of why the United States stations diplomats in foreign countries should be to identify people of promise who share America’s fundamental values and to provide opportunities for those people to learn, grow, and become prominent nationally in their respective countries. America is better at this than it realizes, but the country underinvests in this. And the United States should get busy helping Egypt develop leaders who can write laws, make political compromises, and work within the framework of institutions to strengthen a democratic Egypt.

And on the day Americans celebrate their freedoms, let’s pay tribute to Robert Becker, the National Democratic Institute employee who stayed in Egypt to stand trial for advancing the truths we hold to be self-evident.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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