It's a democratic election, but the choice is between representatives of two strains of anti-democratic forces: an Islamist party and a repressive military. This weekend's runoff election for Egyptian president pits Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood against former Gen. Ahmed Shafiq,who served as the Mubarak regime's last prime minister.
How did Egypt come to such a poor choice? Why did more-or-less free and fair elections culminate in a runoff between two candidates with weak democratic credentials?
The answer: Egypt isn't yet a democratic society. At best it's "pre-democratic." Its willingness to embrace elections may yet open up the political system to democracy. But it lacks the democratic values, institutions and customs that would ensure future elections are more than a choice between anti-democratic forces seeking to claim, or hold onto, power.
A recent Pew survey of Egyptian attitudes toward democracy shows just how far that society has to go. Fewer than half of respondents (41 percent) thought women should have the same rights as men, and fewer still (38 percent) believed that religious freedom for minorities is very important. Even more telling, a significant number of those supporting democracy preferred their new government to be modeled on Saudi Arabia's, not Turkey's.
Elections are a means for people to choose their leaders. If a society holds anti-democratic and illiberal values, it will choose anti-democratic and illiberal leaders. That appears to be happening in Egypt, and also in Russia. Elections there are not completely free and fair, but clearly a sizable part of Russian society is content to be ruled by a corrupt and authoritarian leader like Vladimir Putin. Why they do is a long story, but surely one reason is that many Russians have not bought into the main tenets of democratic society.
Specifically, there must be commitments to political pluralism and revolving power. When out of power, a party must see itself as the loyal opposition — loyal not exclusively to its party base, but to the democratic system. No "higher" commitments to religious sectarianism, race, ethnicity, or even nationalism should ever trump a party's commitment to democracy itself. There must be a firm belief in the rule of law and an independent judiciary to prevent corruption. Individual and minority rights must be firmly protected by the law and accepted by the majority of the people.
We find these characteristics in liberal democracies like the U.S. We don't in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, or even Egypt, which hold elections but cannot reliably be called democracies.
Why do these distinctions matter? Because it is all too easy to assume that a country is naturally on course to democracy when it has embraced elections.
Elections in Egypt may discipline nondemocratic tendencies in society and pave the way for democracy as a set of values and institutions. Or maybe not. The Muslim Brotherhood, in the not-so-venerable tradition of "one vote, one time," could use its control of parliament and the presidency to subvert the democratic process. It's not as if this has never been done before. Islamist extremists hijacked the revolution in Iran and cloaked dictatorship in pseudo-democratic institutions.
It also matters because all too often we treat sectarian conflicts and civil wars as morality plays between democracy and non-democracy. The Syrian conflict is heavily sectarian. There are democratic groups in the opposition; there are also anti-democratic Islamist groups, some even linked to al Qaeda. Who knows who'd prevail in a free election?
Not knowing who exactly to back in the Syrian opposition is no excuse to go easy on President Bashar Assad. But neither should we blithely assume that all we need do is get rid of him and democracy will break out.
Free and fair elections are indispensable to democracy. You can't have democracy without them. But neither can you have democracy without an even greater commitment to the values, institutions and customs that make it work.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.