Democracy for Egypt? Come back in 20 years…

Let's try to make this simple:

For both the United States and Israel, the most convenient situation amid the inconvenience that is current Egypt is for the military to be in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, as well. Alas, however, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less possible it is for the United States to maintain such a cynical position (Israel doesn’t need to talk about such things, and, surprisingly, was able thus far to keep its mouth shut). In other words — but still keeping it simple: Policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure such pretense doesn’t end up hurting the military. Thus, on July 8, the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for restoration of democratic rule. 

Now the longer version: 

Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt, they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country — but they don’t believe any of that is feasible at this time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to attempt to gradually pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, to give it back to the “people” — contingent on the “people” being a transformed “people,” meaning more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to send one another flying off roof-tops or using guns to make a political point. 

In Egypt, illiteracy is rampant, unemployment is pervasive, and the majority of its populace holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the “camps” — supposedly traditional and more liberal — competing for dominance, would also be useful to look at the numbers of which each camp consists. Dividing Egypt into two camps — those believing democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and those who don’t — gives some reason for hope: 59 percent of Egyptians favor democracy, and only 38 percent don’t. 

But what if you make a slightly different division — this time dividing the two camps between those supporting and those opposing the stoning of adulterous women? That division offers a different, far less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82 percent favor stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into camps of those believing that “a wife must always obey her husband” and those who think otherwise? According to a 2013 Pew report, this division finds 85 percent of Egyptians agreeing that she should always obey. So, yes, there are two camps, but on many issues one of them is quite tiny compared to the other, and relying on that to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation can prove risky. 

Given such a starting point, there is little wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt was quickly proven to be nothing more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don’t really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi — albeit a democratically elected president of Egypt who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington’s only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities and relatively stable (it is also Israel’s only hope for an Egypt that isn’t a constant headache, security wise). The one problem that the military poses for the United States and President Barack Obama — how to save face on the issue of democracy — is hardly comparable to the plethora of problems posted by any other scenario. 

“I’ll be blunt: This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said when asked if what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: It isn’t the question that’s complicated, but rather the “situation.” That is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. Of course, Carney knows that a week of chaos in Egypt that began with a relatively unified response from the United States was coming to an end a couple of days ago, with more pundits and leaders beginning to wonder aloud about the hypocritical policy of the Obama administration. 

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid [to Egypt] until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared. 

“We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does, in fact, schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on July 8. Robert Kagan, writing for The Washington Post, argued that the United States failed the “very difficult test” of having to live with an Egyptian democracy headed by Morsi. “But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan is, of course, right: There is no “starting over” in the new situation — a situation that is becoming bloodier by the day, and that, at the time I am writing (Tuesday afternoon), seems quite scary. He is probably wrong, however, if he truly believes that “starting over” is the end game of the Obama administration, when in fact the true goal is twofold: Preventing chaos and saving face — in that order. 

Whether the Egyptian military can provide such an end result — keeping Egypt orderly while putting on some kind of show that will enable the world to pretend democracy is coming soon to Egypt — is a question that will likely remain unanswered in the coming days or weeks. This is a continual nuisance of the so-called Arab Spring (and, I’m afraid, also a recurring, and possibly annoying, theme of this column): Even as events rapidly unfold, they reveal little of the likely outcome of each new situation. 

Egypt was revolutionized unexpectedly, and then was taken democratically by the Muslim Brotherhood, then it erupted again, and now it is in danger of deteriorating into civil war. Thus, it presents Washington with a familiar question: Whether to support the principle of democracy in the hope that a long-term and very painful process would eventually lead to that end result. Or, rather, maybe it is better to forfeit long-term ambitions and dreams in an attempt to make the short term as painless as possible.

For Israeli administrations, the short term has always been the choice. Having to live with a possible chaos closer to home, they tend to postpone dreams in exchange for stability and calm. And, yes, they might also be less caring about whether the Arabs — often a hating enemy — get their dose of freedoms. For the more idealistic Americans, this has never been an easy question, but in Egypt — where stakes are very high and realistic expectations are currently quite low — the answer has already been given. 

What’s next for Egypt then? Putting one’s chips on a truly democratic start-over would be a risky gamble.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at