- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2012

Democracy hangs by a thread in Egypt. Violence and charges of ballot irregularities that accompanied Saturday’s referendum on President Mohammed Morsi’s power grab raise doubt whether Egyptians can find a path to freedom. Should the tally seal a victory for Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the long trek will detour into heavy-handed Islamism.

The opposition National Salvation Front charged that the weekend’s pattern of unmonitored polling places, coercion of voters and failure to seal completed paper ballots “points to a clear desire for vote rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to Agence France-Presse. Clashes between rival factions that left eight dead in Cairo last week persisted during balloting, and the offices of an opposition party newspaper were firebombed. The Shariah-based Muslim Brotherhood claimed a slight lead with 56.5 percent, Reuters reported, but the winning side won’t be decided until ballots are counted from a second round of voting next Saturday.

The Arab Spring uprising of 2010 that ended strongman Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign set in motion a face-off between Islamic and secular factions vying for dominance in charting Egypt’s future. Mr. Morsi, elected in June with a slim 51 percent majority, suddenly issued decrees in late November granting himself near absolute authority. His backers were jubilant, but hundreds of thousands fearing oppression of women and religious minorities took to the streets in protest. In response, a judicial panel hastily drafted a new constitution that would tone down some of Mr. Morsi’s self-appointed authority while still recognizing Islamic law as the foundation for legislation.

The vote over whether to accept the constitution was meant originally to occur on a single day, but Mr. Morsi ordered it broken into two sessions because of a shortage of judges to monitor all 13,000 polling places at once. Pro-democracy organizations considered boycotting the referendum, charging the move allows the Muslim Brotherhood more time to gather momentum in favor of passage. Ultimately, they urged supporters to vote no.

During his administration, President Obama has refused the role of human rights advocate as Islamist movements have swept quickly to power in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Western liberals contend Shariah-based “democracy” is better than none and place their hopes in the notion that the flow of information through cyberspace will somehow soften the impulses of these fundamentalist Islamic states. Unfortunately, the digital age has produced few examples of this in the Middle East. Instead of democrats, the region spawns leaders in the vein of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once compared democracy to “catching a train. When you get to your station, you get off.”

Even if Mr. Obama has few words of support for freedom in Egypt, money talks. Congress should send a message of its own to Cairo’s theocrats that is certain to catch their attention: A decline in liberty will result in a reduction in the $2 billion the United States supplies the country in annual foreign aid. If Egypt turns its back on its people, freedom-loving Americans shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.

The Washington Times