CAIRO -- At a National Security Council meeting in 1959, President Eisenhower mused, "If you go and live with these Arabs, you will find that they simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom and human dignity. They have lived so long under dictatorships of one kind or another, how can we expect them to run successfully a free government?"
With the Egyptian military currently dispersing protesters with live ammunition, sentencing bloggers to prison time, and subjecting female protesters to "virginity tests" -- all without significant protest from Washington -- it's difficult to tell how far American attitudes have evolved from this palpable low point. After all, the best the U.S. State Department could muster was an observation that Egypt is experiencing a "rocky time," and that the U.S. is "deeply concerned" by the blogging debacle. In other words, no one is really surprised by the illiberal backlash, much less concerned about what it will mean for the legions of (mostly liberal) young people who took to the streets to topple Hosni Mubarak.
Yet ironically, the single greatest force driving Egypt toward a future bereft of "freedom and human dignity" is elections. Scheduled for this summer and coupled with American unwillingness to lean on the military strongmen now running the country, early elections promise to return Egypt to its pre-revolutionary state of authoritarian rule. As Fareed Zakaria writes in The Future of Freedom, a book that is worth re-reading after recent events, "The haste to press countries into elections over the last decade has... only made more powerful precisely the kinds of ugly ethnic forces that have made it more difficult to build genuine liberal democracy." Bosnia, in particular, which rushed into elections less than a year after the Dayton peace accords only to see real change waylaid for decades, illustrates Zakaria's point. "In general," he argues, "a five-year period of transition, political reform, and institutional development should precede national multiparty elections."
Following the nationwide constitutional referendum that passed with 77 percent of the vote, however, Egypt's transition period will last less than six months. Already pundits on the left, right, and center are warning that this timetable will benefit only the Muslim Brotherhood and what is left of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. The "Facebook generation" who fomented the revolution will not have time to form political parties or mobilize in support of liberal policies. As Amr Hamzawy, a professor at Cairo University and a founder of the new Egyptian Social Democratic Party, lamented in a recent lecture at the American University in Cairo, "We never thought about having a real competitive election. We do not know how to participate in elections."
And Hamzawy and other political neophytes will be fighting an uphill battle. Revolution or no revolution, Egypt has a long way to go before freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and human rights gain widespread acceptance. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 84 percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for Muslims who convert to a different faith, 82 percent support stoning adulterers, and 77 percent are in favor of whipping or cutting off the hands of thieves. (In Lebanon, these numbers were 6 percent, 23 percent, and 13 percent, respectively.) Moreover, the majority of Egyptians I have spoken to believe that the military was right to ban further protests, and that freedom of association should not take precedence over return to normalcy -- the military's stated aim in criminalizing, and then brutally disbanding protests in Tahrir Square.
None of this, however, should be taken to validate Eisenhower's claim. The young people who risk their lives defying military orders week in and week out are poised to trample the patriarchal norms that have held Egyptians hostage for so long; it may just take longer now that conservatives have thrown them a curveball in early elections. Where the U.S. can help is by changing the narrative from Eisenhower's fatalism to something closer to outrage at Egypt's giant steps backward in the last few weeks. It's not an understanding of freedom and human dignity that Egyptians lack, only a free interim government.