05/15/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

A Chill in the Arab Spring Air

Egyptians living outside the country are voting in 114 Egyptian embassies and consulates around the world today, beginning the largest in a series of electoral exercises across the Arab world this spring. But Egypt's election, together with the others, only underscores the shattered hopes for democratic empowerment that facile Western commentators had once cheered as an "Arab spring."

Elections have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.

The parliament in Lebanon, the country with the region's oldest formally democratic institutions, has failed in two ballotings to elect a president, with a third vote scheduled for today. The new head of state will then preside over fresh parliamentary elections, where Lebanese voters actually have some chance to reshuffle the political balance within their own sectarian communities.

Under Lebanon's rigid allocation of top political posts among the main religious communities, the president must be a Maronite Catholic. To win, however, a candidate has to have appeal among major Muslim blocs. One of them is Hezbollah, and the civil war in Syria in which Hezbollah has intervened looms large in the balloting. Several candidates have long histories with or against the Assad clan. But for many Lebanese an even larger concern is the apparently pervasive corruption in a political system that combines the clientelistic paternalism of southern Italy with the communal divisions that scarred the former Yugoslavia.

Still, Lebanon's byzantine politics seem hopeful by comparison with those of its Arab neighbors. In Iraq, where a formally democratic political regime appears to be the one positive legacy of the Bush administration's 2003 invasion, the results of the April 30 parliamentary elections, due out this month, are expected to trigger intense political maneuvering either to depose incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki or to secure him another mandate. Leaders of the Kurdish region, asserting that al-Maliki reneged on his past promises to them, this week threatened to boycott Baghdad altogether, reinforcing fears Iraqi "democracy" only means paralysis.

To be sure, the 2011 uprisings occurred in neither Iraq nor Lebanon. Their experience nonetheless serves as a marker for democracy and its discontents in the Arab world. By contrast, their common neighbor, Syria, is a literal graveyard for democrats.

Pointedly, President Bashar al-Assad's representatives at the aborted Geneva peace talks in February refused to engage with opposition negotiators on political and constitutional revisions in order to secure a Syrian peace. Damascus authorities unilaterally decided to revise the election law in 2011, and held a parliamentary election under a new constitution in 2012, despite the war, in which Assad's party swept two-thirds of the seats.

The same rules will apply to the election Assad has called for June 3. True, there is the novelty for Syrians of having two other names on the ballot beside the heavily promoted Assad's. No one imagines this ballot will give Syrians a real choice in the direction of their country. The vote may, however, indicate the degree to which war-battered citizens are ready to capitulate to the government. The public at large may not think real democracy is worth the price they are paying.

Egyptians too seem to be having their doubts about democracy. The street protests that thrillingly brought down Hosni Mubarak's pharaonic regime in February 2011 many now see as launching two years of widening chaos, polarizing religious conflict, and economic collapse. One-time democracy protesters begged Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to overthrow president Mohamed Morsi's Islamist government last year, and they have voiced scant protest about the military's violent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood that backed him.

Coptic Christians, long targets of Brotherhood violence, are a bulwark of al-Sisi's support. Those in the devastated tourist industry, from managers of luxury hotels to camel-drivers at pyramid sites, fervently back al-Sisi as the strong man who will put an end to the dissension they imagine has scared away foreign tourists. Government workers who report that Morsi appointees kept records on how often employees joined in prayers each day welcome al-Sisi's common sense.

Egyptians sound eerily like American conservatives in charging President Obama with being in league with Muslim Brothers. They dismiss concerns about upholding democratic legitimacy, and only seem flustered when reminded that it was Egyptians, not Obama, who elected Morsi.

For the moment, those Egyptians whom foreigners tend to meet seem eager to embrace al-Sisi, whose billboards suddenly blossomed beside every road and intersection across Cairo and the country as soon as he publicly confirmed his candidacy for president in this month's vote. (The one other candidate on the ballot, Nasser nostalgist Hamdeen Sabahi, has no such public visibility.)

There will be one interesting test of Egyptians' apparent yearning for normalcy: voter turnout. Barely ten percent of Egyptian adults voted in the uncontested plebiscites that periodically continued Mubarak in office; when he succumbed to President Bush's pressure to allow some competitors on the ballot in 2005, turnout rose to 23 percent. But voter participation more than doubled in the genuinely contested election of 2012, and Cairo's establishment seems acutely aware that that is a benchmark.

A big turnout is essential, one Cairo newspaper writes today, "to establish a new ruling legitimacy based on a turnout exceeding the 51.8 percent of the 2012 presidential elections that instated Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the first democratically-elected president."

Egyptians' distress and, in many cases, disenchantment with democracy seems particularly depressing. Waves of democratization in Latin America in the 1970s, Asia in the 1980s, and Eastern Europe and Africa in the 1990s seemed far more secure. But the chill hanging over this season's votes in the Arab world suggest that a democratic spring is still a long way off.