Washington's Hard Egypt Lesson

January 20, 2014 Topic: Failed States Region: Egypt

Washington's Hard Egypt Lesson

Can we salvage a path away from tyranny in the wreckage of our democracy-promotion strategy?


We appear to have come full circle in Egypt. With the passage of a new constitution in a referendum which in terms of how it was conducted (and in light of a nearly-unanimous yes vote) strongly resembles how balloting was conducting during the days of Hosni Mubarak, the old regime has essentially been restored, three years after the start of the Tahrir Square uprising. The path is now clear for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current defense minister and de facto head of the interim authority that took power after the military deposed Mohamed Morsi from the presidency of Egypt, to seek the presidential office.

Events in Egypt validate many of the concerns of those who criticized the Obama administration's volte-face on Egypt three years ago, by backing a revolutionary process rather than helping to orchestrate evolutionary change. The apparent failure of the Egyptian revolution is only the latest in a series of setbacks for the supposed fourth wave of global democratization. We don't hear much anymore about the progress being made towards consolidating pro-Western democratic rule in places like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Lebanon anymore; indeed, of all the many events heralded over the last decade and a half as proof that freedom was on the march, only two--the revolution which deposed Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and the Rose Revolution in Georgia--which has just seen the first peaceful transition of presidential power in its nation's history--can now be assessed as successes. Caught up either in the emotional upswing of the CNN effect when large crowds are shown in squares in capital cities, or overestimating the power of the United States to depose autocratic regimes and forge viable new democracies, much of the U.S. foreign policy community has consistently rejected the advice and counsel of those who might term themselves the "gradualists", labelling the latter as nonbelievers in freedom and democracy because of their "take it slow" approach.


The Obama administration was swept up by the cries of "Mubarak must go" and the optimistic expectations that the Tahrir Square revolutionaries would usher in a new age for Egypt. The playbook which worked to bring about long-term, sustainable change in places like South Korea was thrown out--where the U.S. worked with a military regime to ultimate pave the way for a more open political system. In particular, the U.S. has and continues to conflate two different strategies; the first, what Amitai Etzioni has termed a "de-tyrannization" strategy--removing despots from power and creating sustainable regimes that can evolve towards greater openness and ultimate democratization--with pushing for rapid democratization, even in the absence of the conditions for sustaining viable democratic regimes.

What might have happened if instead the United States had used its influence, particularly with the military, to push for a structured transition, that followed the models followed for transitioning a country from autocratic and military rule to full constitutional democracy, perhaps sticking with the outline apparently presented by special envoy Frank Wisner? Mubarak, old and ailing, would most likely have needed to step down; but his successor could have been installed with a definite term limit and no possibility of re-election, thus signaling that there would be further change--as occurred in South Korea in 1980 when Chun Doo Hwan had explicitly accepted the provision of a single term for president in the constitution. A date could have been set for parliamentary elections with sufficient time to allow all political factions and ideologies to organize and develop grassroots political operations; the push for early elections after Mubarak's departure gave an overwhelming advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose years of activism had given them a ready-made apparatus for getting out the vote.

One reason why the Korea transition succeeded in 1987-88 was that it was preceded by years of economic reform which generated growth and thus helped to solidify a middle class interested in stability. Egyptians, by contrast, cast a series of ballots in 2011 and 2012 underneath the shadow of an economic crisis which created unrealistic expectations for any post-Mubarak government to match.

Democratic transitions are also more likely to succeed if key elements of the old order believe that their interests will be respected and safeguarded under the new dispensation. Instead, the post-Mubarak government of Morsi seemed to signal that it would take a zero-sum approach to governance, concerns heightened by Morsi's constitutional declaration in November 2012. Over time, elements in the business community and the secular elites were courted by a military establishment that itself was worried about its future to coalesce in the coup d'etat of July 3, 2013.

So, the situation today is one where two presidents of Egypt, in the last three years, have been forced from office and detained by the successor governments; where hopes for establishing a more normal civil-military relationship have been dashed; and where U.S. influence has been significantly reduced because of its vaccilation between support for a democratic electoral process and its interests in preserving a friendly regime in Cairo. Washington's ability today to help guide Egypt towards a more open society is much more limited than it was three years ago.

If Sisi does stand for president, would he commit to serve a single term of office and then to step down? Would the military begin to loosen its grip on the country to allow for greater political space and mobilization--and would the Muslim Brotherhood take a page from the Turkish example, where the Islamist Virtue Party, banned in 2001 for violating the provisions against non-secular parties recreated itself more along acceptable lines to the military as the Justice and Development Party (AKP)? It is not clear at all. Egypt could evolve along the same path as South Korea if the military wants to emulate that example. On the other hand, it could just as easily embrace the model of Burma/Myanmar. So the question Washington must now confront is this: can we salvage a viable de-tyrannization approach from the wreckage of our democracy promotion strategy in Egypt?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: White House/Flickr.