How does Egypt move on? And what can the United States do to help, or at least not make the situation worse?
The most important step is for secular parties to accept that, if they want a democratic outcome, they have to fight in the electoral arena. Democracy does not just mean elections, though they are an unavoidable component of a democratic process. Secular parties have already wasted two years they should have devoted to organizing in squabbling among themselves and hoping that the courts could stop the rise of Islamist parties. With the economy in tatters and many Egyptians, including pious ones, worried about a possible Islamist overreach, secularists can get support. But they need to organize, develop a message, and show more respect for ordinary Egyptians, whose votes they need. It is not that Islamists do not share the blame for the present state of affairs. They have become arrogant and overly sure of themselves, but the only way to stop them is to show that they are vulnerable to competition.
The role of the United States or any other country in the Egyptian transition is limited. Transitions are always predominantly a domestic process, and Egyptians are hypernationalistic and oversensitive. Outsiders must not choose sides. They must reject both the secularist narrative of victimization and Islamist claims that elections have given them a mandate. Secularists need to be told that many of their problems are self-inflicted and that they need to stop dithering and take the task of organizing for elections more seriously. Islamists need to be reminded that an election victory is not a mandate for unlimited power; they face immense problems, particularly economic ones, and they cannot even start addressing them without broad cooperation from all political forces and a skeptical international community. With an economy in free fall, Islamists have an interest in sharing the burden and, ultimately, the blame.
And everybody, in Egypt and outside, needs to remember that transitions are always difficult prolonged affairs. Two years is barely the beginning.
Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Image: Flickr/Zeinab Mohamed. CC BY-SA 2.0.