As the oldest and strongest advocate for democracy on earth, you would think that we Americans would understand that it doesn’t spring full-grown from the holding of elections, and that to make elections the primary benchmark of progress when advising a fledgling new democracy may do more harm than good — especially in the Middle East. Consider what has happened in Iraq, the Palestinian territories or recently in Egypt; namely, sectarian warfare in Iraq, disunity and violence among Palestinians, and a seriously flawed, now-deposed government in Egypt.
It takes time (e.g., South Sudan today) for tribes to accept that tolerance toward other tribes may serve their self-interest, and more time still before that stage leads to rudimentary pluralism — intertribal political parties espousing differing concepts of the relationship between the state and the individual. As competing ideas of governance evolve, it quickly becomes clear that none of them can mature without a fundamental level of security for everyone in the country. Once that principle is accepted, function necessitates form and leads to the establishment of institutions, constabularies, ministries — bodies able to conceive policies and administer programs and justice.
However, such a rational-analytic approach to building a national political-economy does not have deep roots in the Middle East. Yet it is clear that consideration of where it can gain traction settles quickly on Egypt. In the more than 7,000 years of its existence, Egypt has adopted the rule of law, experienced prolonged periods of stability and economic growth, fostered remarkable scientific achievement, developed modern institutions — its military is a notable example — and a legendary cultural sophistication.
Still, its political parties are rudimentary and have thus far proven unable to put forward a coherent framework for keeping corruption within limits, maintaining political checks and balances, and instituting a sustainable basis for economic growth beyond tourism.
After a wrenching election in 2011 held largely at the insistence of Western countries, in which the best-organized but least-qualified party — the Muslim Brotherhood — won, the Egyptian people soon realized that their hopes and trust had been ignored and abused, and that the election had failed to produce a competent government, able and willing to establish order and move toward reform. Amazingly, they awakened with remarkable resilience, went into the streets in the second half of June of 2013 — and stayed there.
When this tide of more than 30,000,000 people voted with their feet for days on end, it became clear to the army — historically, the institutional arbiter of what it takes to maintain order — that it had to act. It did so by calling on the government to roll back its abuses, to restore the interim constitution, to stop releasing terrorists from the prisons and to cease other destructive policies. Providentially, the Brotherhood refused, and the army was justified in honoring what grass-roots Egyptians are now calling the “popular impeachment” of President Mohammed Morsi.
To its lasting credit, the army quickly called upon respected civilians — the former chief justice of the Supreme Court and others — to serve in an interim government while arrangements were made to draft a new constitution and set a timeline for engaging the popular will in new elections. A drafting “Committee of 50” was formed under the chairmanship of Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League. Its members were drawn from all sectors of Egypt’s political and economic spectrum, including all minorities and faiths from throughout Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was invited to participate, but declined. Then, in a remarkably transparent process, the committee set to work. Its focus and substantive progress were made available almost daily on television for all Egyptians to see and hear.
The resulting draft is an impressive, comprehensive document that treats — and guarantees — women’s and other minorities’ rights, provides for an independent court system, and finesses the role of Shariah, calling it an important — but not the exclusive — source from which the guiding principles were drawn.
The constitution is the centerpiece of what the interim government has called its road map — essentially, a schedule that called first for a national referendum to approve or reject the constitution. It passed last week overwhelmingly. That will be followed within six months by the election of a new parliament and a new president.
All this is not to say that Egypt has smooth sailing ahead. The most daunting challenge is to turn around the economy, which has suffered grievously from the collapse of the tourism industry — a result of the violence of the past two years and the imposition of travel restrictions by Western countries. Other Arab states have contributed more than $15 billion thus far to fill the void stemming from lost commercial revenues and diminished taxes.
Anti-Americanism is deep and bitter in Cairo and throughout Egypt today. It is especially focused on Western press treatment of the “Second Revolution,” the period from January through July 3 of last year, when it became clear that Mr. Morsi was bringing the country to ruin and had to be removed. One manifestation of this anger is in the welcome being extended to Russia and others who have lost no time in offering to replace the United States as a supplier of arms and other essentials.
We can overcome this setback. Efforts to repair the damage ought to start by restoring the aid that has been a critical staple of our relations with Egypt. Progress beyond that must rest on an awakening to the reality that elections alone do not ensure stability or sensible governance. Fortunately, the gross mismanagement of the government by the Muslim Brotherhood has resulted in it being discredited, and Egypt has been given a second chance.
We should also recognize the stakes at risk in how we engage the new Egyptian government and its people in the year ahead. Throughout its millennial history Egypt has been — and remains — the guiding light of Arab culture, the touchstone of legitimacy and the role model to be emulated throughout the region. It is not too much to say that by nurturing the success of the new government of Egypt we will nurture stability in the Middle East, with all the attendant benefits for American interests that implies.
Robert McFarlane served as national security adviser to President Reagan.