How to save Egypt’s dying chance at democracy

David Rhode writes: The return of protests, tanks and death to the streets of Cairo this week is harrowing. So is the power of the rampant conspiracy theories that cause both Muslim Brotherhood members and their secular opponents to sincerely believe that they are the defenders of Egypt’s revolution.

Criticisms of President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab and rushed constitutional process are legitimate. So are complaints that the country’s secular opposition is poorly organized, lacks majority support and refuses to compromise.

Barring a surprising change in direction, Egypt’s experiment with democracy seems to be headed toward failure. The country’s flawed constitution will likely be ratified in a referendum on Dec. 15. A frustrated and distrustful opposition will boycott subsequent Parliamentary elections. Mr. Morsi will lead a “soft authoritarian” government similar to that of former President Hosni Mubarak. Small opposition parties will exist, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance of the state, politics and society will never be in doubt.

U.S. officials — ever eager for stability in the Middle East — will turn a blind eye and establish a “working relationship” with Mr. Morsi.

“I think the impulse of most American administrations is to show up in an Arab country and say, ‘Take me to your leader,’ ” Nathan J. Brown, a George Washington University professor and leading expert on Egypt, told me in a bleak interview this week. “I don’t think we have many alternatives. The United States is not in the position to back a military coup or the opposition.”

Mr. Brown is correct. Yes, the United States has some economic leverage in Cairo, but in general America remains radioactive in post-Mubarak Egypt. After 40 years of the U.S. backing Egyptian strongmen who made peace with Israel, Washington is hugely mistrusted.

A September 2012 Gallup Poll found that 82 percent of Egyptians opposed the country’s government accepting any economic aid from the United States. By comparison, 42 percent of Egyptians surveyed — roughly half that number — opposed the country’s peace treaty with Israel.

For those who think more “American leadership” is the answer: a U.S.-backed military coup — which it is doubtful the U.S. could engineer — would radicalize Islamists across the region and be an enormous gift to Al Qaeda. Similarly, if Washington openly backs the country’s secular opposition, those opponents will be viewed as American stooges and lose popular support. [Continue reading…]

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