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Democracy Not Around the Corner in Egypt

The July 3rd coup in Egypt dashed the hopes of those who believed that the 2011 revolution was a harbinger of democracy in the Arab world's most populous country.

However, decades of scholarship on democratization has shown that when a country has relatively low levels of education and per capita income, high inequality, a high proportion of young people, and a weak civil society, the odds do not favor democratic endurance. Egypt fares poorly with respect to each of these criteria. One in every four Egyptians is illiterate, a statistic not helped by its overpopulation problem, whereby the fastest-growing sector is the rural poor. Young people aged 10-24 make up about a third of Egypt's population. Egypt has a very small middle class with high income and social inequality. It has a weak civil society despite the increase in NGOs over the past two decades, a large percentage of which are traditional religious organizations and development organizations that provide charity rather than organizations that focus on human rights, democracy, and political reform.

If Egypt's structural conditions are inhospitable to democracy, so is its political culture. To date, the key players in Egypt have failed to show even the most rudimentary understanding of what democracy is all about. Elections are seen as a means of gaining and consolidating power, not as part of a process of democratization. Pluralism, tolerance towards minorities and towards political differences, human rights, and respect for the rule of law are not values that are embraced by Egypt's key political actors. As President Shimon Peres of Israel put it recently, "elections are just procedure. Democracy starts the day after elections and includes underlying values and substance."

Morsi spent much of his one year in power consolidating his authority in what amounted to a power grab. He purged the military's top brass and granted himself sweeping new powers that gave him immunity from appeals in courts. From day one, he rejected the idea of an inclusive democracy. The Assembly that drafted the constitution was dominated by Islamists and largely excluded women, liberals, and Christians. Egypt's Copts suffered unprecedented discrimination in the past year, with thousands feeling to Europe and the United States. In the last weeks of his presidency, as he faced millions of demonstrators, Morsi dismissed attempts by the country's top general, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi - as well as U.S. prodding - to forge a compromise with the other political factions. Tellingly, a pro-Morsi rally following his ouster featured the black flag of jihad and cheers for a "war council," as the speaker proclaimed "no more peacefulness after today" and the crowd shouted back "No more election after today."

The military appears no more committed to democracy than was Morsi. Since the coup, the army has detained Morsi at an undisclosed location, arrested leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, shuttered their television stations, and killed dozens of Islamist activists. It remains to be seen whether elections will be held by February 2014 in accordance with the interim government's timetable; whether a diversified list of parties will be allowed to participate; and whether the military will agree to transfer power to civilian authorities.

Transitions to democracy typically take a long time. It took Brazil sixteen years to become a democracy. The revolutions of 1989 in East Central Europe seemingly created democratic regimes all at once, but even Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other post-communist societies began the process of transitioning into democracies decades earlier.

Widespread and prolonged violence only reduces the prospects for political democracy.

Expecting Egypt to become a democracy less than two years after the revolution that ousted President Mubarak is unrealistic. Some congressional leaders have proposed cutting off aid to Egypt, but such a move would likely strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Islamists, such as the ultra-conservative Nour Party. A smarter approach would be to tie the approximately $1.5 billion aid the U.S. gives annually to Egypt with its progress on democratization. Such a requirement was inserted into the fiscal 2012 military aid bill by Sen. Patrick Leahy but has been waived by the Obama administration. The administration should also fund programs aimed at promoting democracy and good governance. Past efforts in this regard were limited because of countervailing pressures by the Egyptian government. However, the Obama administration ought to ratchet up the pressure on the country's leadership to enable civil society groups that promote democracy, human rights, and good governance to pursue their activities unhindered so that a political culture can develop over time that will enable democracy to succeed.

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