In Egypt, a rare second chance for US to support democracy

U.S. Department of State

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr after their joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., in September 28, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Muslim Brotherhood and allies dominated Egypt’s first free elections last year, claiming more than 70% of parliament seats.

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  • Muslim Brotherhood support peaked in December, thus parliament no longer represented the Egyptian public.

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  • Egypt is at a crossroads. One path leads to civil chaos and another leads to dictatorship. @MRubin1971

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State Department condemnation came quick when the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court voided Egypt's parliamentary elections.  “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people,'" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “We want to see the Egyptians have what they fought for, which is a free, fair, democratic, transparent system of government," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added.

Ironically, the court’s actions may provide a rare second chance for a free, fair, and democratic system. While journalists depict the court’s action as a “judicial coup,” it has precedent. In 1987 and 1990, the same court used the same technicalities to dissolve Egypt’s parliament. Then its goal was to reinforce Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Last week’s decree benefited the military from which the ailing Mubarak rose but, with Mubarak gone, it may preserve an opportunity for democracy which had already withered on the altar of Islamist populism.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies dominated Egypt’s first free elections late last year, claiming more than 70 percent of the seats in parliament. Whereas Egypt’s national assembly was once little more than a rubber stamp body, the new parliament was anything but: Its task was not simply to legislate, but rather to draft a constitution to shape Egypt for decades.

Herein lays the rub: The parliament no longer represented the Egyptian public. Muslim Brotherhood support peaked in December. Whereas the party surpassed 10 million votes in the parliamentary elections, six months later, four-in-ten supporters looked elsewhere. 

In first round voting for president, Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi topped Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s old guard prime minister by just a quarter-million votes, hardly a ringing endorsement in a country of 80 million.  

Egyptians had voted for Islamists initially not because they uniformly shared the groups’ agenda, but rather because the Islamist parties—with financial support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—ran swank, well-organized campaigns which cashed in on decades of populism. 

While in opposition, the Brotherhood could promise Egyptians the world: If empowered, the Brotherhood would end corruption and nepotism, implement effective government services, raise salaries, guarantee housing and provide jobs, and restore social justice. Putting a chicken in every pot, however, takes not only money but also chickens and pots. The Brotherhood not only could not deliver but, increasingly, it looked like it did not care even to try. It dispensed with the moderate, English-speaking interlocutors who had charmed Western journalists in Tahrir Square, and cast its lot with intolerant, backroom religious conservatives.

On May 1, for example, Egyptian television aired a Morsi rally in which an Islamist cleric declared, “Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas” and led the crowds in chants of “Allahu Akbar.” 

Coptic leaders say that Morsi promised a Muslim Brotherhood audience that he would impose discriminatory religious taxes on Egypt’s dwindling Christian community. The Brotherhood sought to jail Adel Imam, Egypt’s Leslie Nielson, with defaming Islam for satirical films he starred in two decades ago which poked fun at the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Rather than seek consensus across the political spectrum, Morsi violated earlier promises and sought to consolidate power across all bodies of government. Sheikh Osama Qasim, an Egyptian Islamic Jihad member, urged people to support imposition of Islamic law in a May 19 article, and warned that Islamists would accept no candidate who did not embrace the Islamist platform. “The fate of any of them who reaches the presidency will be like that of former President Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated,” he explained. 

It seemed the Muslim Brotherhood embraced the adage voiced by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s autocratic prime minister and the product of a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot himself. “Democracy is like a street car,” he told his Islamist supporters before winning power. “When you come to your stop, you get off.”

With security collapsing, and flagrant Islamist disregard for democratic principles, Egypt had become a slow motion train wreck reminiscent of Algeria in 1991. Then, Islamists sought to transform an election victory into permanent rule, instituting a philosophy of “one man, one vote, one time” in the words of Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state at the time. The military’s attempt to reassert control led to a decade-long civil war that killed 150,000.

Realists should not rejoice in the Egyptian court’s actions. While Americans know their generals as war heroes, no serving Egyptian general has ever won a war, let alone a battle. Egyptians instead know their generals as businessmen. When Shafik and his courtroom allies celebrate an apparent victory in their high-stakes game of chicken, they have no interest in true democracy, even if they acquiesce to Morsi as a figurehead president devoid of power.

Rather than choose between two fundamentally undemocratic forces, however, the United States has a rare second chance to correct past wrongs. 

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush placed his freedom agenda front and center to his national security strategy. “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” he declared. 

Bush was right, but his national team never gave the agenda a chance. Then as now, the State Department reduced democracy to elections and ignored liberalism, individual liberty, accountability, and tolerance. After Hamas and Hezbollah used elections to achieve undemocratic aims, the State Department re-embraced dictators like Mubarak.

The Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim once described autocrats and theocrats as mirror images of each other. Both recruit off fear and disdain of the other, but they reserve their true animus for any liberal alternative which might arise to challenge both extremes. Here, they find unlikely allies in senior American officials who believe values-based foreign policy simplistic and career diplomats who resent any policy which complicates relations with host governments.

With the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrating disdain for democratic values, and Shafik little more than a throwback to a moribund dictatorship, President Obama has an opportunity to implement a true freedom agenda. Speaking in Cairo three years ago this month, Obama warned, “Elections alone do not make true democracy,” and called on governments to maintain consent and eschew coercion, respect minorities, embrace tolerance and compromise, and put the public’s interests first.

Egypt is at a crossroads. One path leads to civil chaos and another leads to dictatorship.  As both sides delegitimize themselves, however, Obama has a rare opportunity to pick up where Bush left off, and support the growth of new movements which embrace the values of Tahrir Square’s original protestors.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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