The Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood is yet another sign of the dark side of the Arab awakening. Across the Middle East, glimmerings of democracy are being snuffed out by political turmoil and violence.
That reality requires a sobering course correction in American policy. Rather than viewing the end of autocracy’s monopoly as a ripe moment to spread democracy in the region, Washington should downsize its ambition and work with transitional governments to establish the foundations of responsible, even if not democratic, rule.
Ever since the Egyptian military seized power last month, the United States government, backed by much of the country’s foreign policy elite, has demanded the restoration of democratic rule. President Obama instructed Egypt’s generals “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.” The Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina visited Cairo to press the new government to restore democratic rule and have called for cutting off aid if it doesn’t.
But while Washington must unequivocally condemn the violence unleashed by the Egyptian military, clamoring for a rapid return to democracy is misguided.
To be sure, the American creed favors the promotion of democracy, and democracies do have a track record of better behavior than autocracies. But the penchant for rushing transitional states to the ballot box often does more harm than good, producing dysfunctional and illiberal regimes. Egypt’s recently deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, may have been fairly elected, but he presided over the near collapse of the Egyptian state and ran roughshod over his political opponents.
Rather than cajoling Cairo to hold elections and threatening to suspend aid if it does not, Washington should press the current leadership to adhere to clear standards of responsible governance, including ending the violence and political repression, restoring the basic functions of the state, facilitating economic recovery, countering militant extremists and keeping the peace with Israel. At this fragile moment in Egypt’s political awakening, the performance of its government will be a more important determinant of its legitimacy and durability than whether it won an election.
More generally, Washington should back off from its zealous promotion of democracy in Egypt and the broader Middle East for three main reasons.
For starters, even if liberal democracies do tend to provide good governance at home and abroad, rapid transitions to democracy historically have had the opposite effect: disorder at home and instability beyond the countries’ borders. In nations that lack experience with constitutional constraints and democratic accountability, electoral victors usually embrace winner-take-all strategies; they shut out the opposition, govern as they see fit and unsettle their neighbors. In one case after another — Bosnia, Russia, Ukraine, Iraq, Egypt — newly democratic governments have demonized opponents and ruled with an iron fist.
Incremental change produces more durable results; liberal democracies must be constructed from the ground up. Constitutional constraints, judicial reform, political parties, economic privatization — these building blocks of democratic societies need time to take root. The West’s own experience provides ample evidence. England became a constitutional monarchy after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, but did not mature into a liberal democracy until the 20th century.
Moreover, transitions to democracy in the Middle East will be more perilous than those elsewhere because of factors unique to the region: the power of political Islam and the entrenched nature of sectarian and tribal loyalties.
Islam and democracy are by no means incompatible. However, religion and politics are intimately interwoven throughout the Middle East. Islamic tradition makes no distinction between mosque and state, helping Islamists win elections throughout the region. One result is a debilitating struggle between empowered Islamists and fractured secularists that is playing out in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and just about everywhere else.
Absent the Western tradition of separating the sacred from the secular — which came about only after the bloody wars of the Protestant Reformation — pitched battles over the role of Islam in politics will bedevil aspiring Middle East democracies for generations to come.
So, too, will sectarian and tribal politics make successful democratic transitions in the Middle East especially elusive. A sense of national belonging is the twin sister of democracy; nationalism is the social glue that makes consensual politics work. Egypt, like Turkey and Iran, is fortunate to have a strong national identity dating back centuries. But Egypt is nonetheless stumbling as it tries to put down robust democratic roots.
Social cohesion will be even harder to come by in many of the region’s other states — like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — which are contrived nations cobbled together by departing colonial powers. They risk being split asunder by sectarian, ethnic and tribal cleavages.
Finally, Washington’s determined promotion of democracy compromises its credibility because doing so is often at odds with its own policies. Its closest allies in the Arab world, the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, are the region’s least democratic states. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, America promptly sought to undermine the new government.
These departures from democratic principles are, as they should be, guided by concrete national interests. But as the Arab awakening unfolds, Washington’s leverage will further diminish unless its rhetoric catches up with its actions.
The United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn.