Egyptian Democracy: Retreating Or Advancing?

As Egypt’s revolution lurches on, this week’s military takeover could wind up doing more to reverse the trend toward Islamization and set that country on the course of democracy than the continued rule of its first democratically elected president, the deposed Mohamed Morsi.

No sooner had Morsi taken office almost exactly one year ago than he began steering the country away from democracy and his promises to be inclusive, focus on economic development and govern from the center.  Instead, he pushed through a constitution based on Sharia law, declared the courts could not overrule any of his decisions and began replacing generals and national, regional and local officials with Islamist loyalists.

Morsi’s removal could be very good both for the United States and Israel.  Morsi and Barack Obama never established a friendly relationship, and Obama even said he considered the Egyptian leader neither an ally nor an enemy. Morsi cut off diplomatic contacts with the Jewish state although he pledged to honor the treaty and kept his word.  But that had less to do with Israel than the knowledge that observing the treaty is critical to keeping U.S. and even European aid.

While at the political level things were so frosty that the Mubarak era’s cold peace looked warm and fuzzy by comparison, Egyptian military and intelligence forces continued to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts on security issues important to both sides, notably arms smuggling in and out of the Sinai, the Gaza-Sinai-Israel border, terrorism and Islamist militants in the Sinai.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his ministers to say nothing about the events in Egypt at such a sensitive time; if he can pull that off it will rival the miracle of Chanukah. But former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi did tell the Jerusalem Post, “I think the Egyptian army is too busy [with domestic issues] to deal with anything that is outside of Egypt, so I don’t think there’s any danger [to Israel] at the moment,”

Also applauding the Egyptian army’s move was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He praised the toppling of Morsi and his Islamist government, and some leaders of his Fatah movement called on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to follow that good example and bring down the Hamas government there.  His Fatah party’s nemesis, Hamas, is an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

The new Egyptian rulers have promised free and fair elections and a transition to democratic government, but the Morsi experience should tell the Army and the people  — and the Obama administration that is also pushing for early elections — that haste makes waste.  The Muslim Brotherhood prevailed last year because it was the only well organized political organization. What Egypt needs is not a rush to elections but for political institutions and parties to develop leadership, organization and programs to take to voters.

The Obama administration has appeared clueless.  It was faulted for being two quick to abandon Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and now demonstrators in Egypt carried banners accusing Washington of having embraced Morsi too quickly and too tightly.

The President has said he is “deeply concerned” about suspending the Egyptian constitution although it is widely seen as a blueprint for Islamist rule, not democracy. 

Obama was careful not to label the Army’s takeover as a coup because that would trigger some legal and political moves that he wants to avoid. Instead he called for a review of the $1.3 billion in annual US aid to Egypt, and that makes the Egyptian army, the Israelis and the Pentagon nervous. In Israaeli eyes that is the glue that hold together their peace treaty with Egypt and,  it is also critical to American influence in the largest Arab country.

If we really want to help the Egyptian people, don’t push them to premature elections but give time and help for developing a leadership that can deal with the problems that brought them to Tahrir Square in January 2011 – jobs, health care, education, housing and economic opportunity.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.