Three years ago this month, millions of brave Egyptians were celebrating the fall of their brutal, corrupt dictator, Hosni Mubarak. To the American eye, the Arab Spring was even more remarkable than the revolutions that brought down the Soviet empire two decades earlier. It was an article of faith that the people of eastern Europe longed to be free and that communist economic mismanagement would eventually weaken those regimes; the only real surprise was the uprisings' timing. By contrast, we had been told that Arabs preferred the strong hand of despots and that many of the autocrats were "pro-Western" (which conjures images of democratic openness).
Millions of Egyptians begged to differ. In overthrowing Mubarak's military-backed regime, they sent a powerful message that humane, democratic values truly are universal and set out on a twisting path seeking a better future. But today, that journey is still nowhere near its end, despite the recent referendum on yet another constitution drafted by a narrow committee to entrench those in power and the all-but-certain accession of Minister of Defense Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency.
As the world's most powerful democracy and a large aid donor, the United States was uniquely positioned to support the Egyptian people's quest. Instead, our response has been remarkably short-sighted and always a step behind.
When the Egyptian people first streamed into the streets and saw hundreds of peaceful demonstrators killed, the administration was slow to embrace the democracy movement: Vice President Joe Biden insisted that President Mubarak was not a dictator. When a military junta replaced Mr. Mubarak, continued his repressive policies and cooperated with Islamists to exclude secular democrats, we embraced them warmly and continued arms shipments. Observers noted the bitter irony that democracy activists were donning Chinese-made gas masks to protect themselves from "Made in USA" tear gas shells. When Egyptians narrowly chose an Islamist president in elections from which the junta excluded secular democrats, we kept our distance from the new administration. We eventually warmed up to President Mohammed Morsi — just as his machine-style politics, economic mismanagement and continued oppression of secular democrats were turning the Egyptian people against him.
The 30 million Egyptians who took to the streets over the summer to demand Mr. Morsi's ouster made up what was likely the largest political demonstration anywhere ever — and this from a people who less than three years earlier the West had dismissed as utterly passive. Yet rather than embracing this remarkable exercise in popular democracy, we have gotten bogged down in an absurd debate over whether what happened was a second revolution or a coup. It was both. Just as the French Revolution was a genuine outpouring of popular yearning for freedom that Robespierre later hijacked into a dictatorship, so too were last summer's mass demonstrations a genuine expression of popular will that Defense Minister al-Sisi is co-opting to install himself as president of a reconstituted authoritarian regime.
For the most powerful man in Egypt, Marshal al-Sisi is acting remarkably scared. Not content with overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood, his regime is concocting ever-more-bizarre conspiracy theories to justify killings of well over 1,000 peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators, mass arrests of others, show trials and the jailing of numerous independent journalists. He also has locked up most prominent secular democrats — including Ahmed Maher, Egypt's George Washington — on equally preposterous charges.
The near-term prospects are undeniably bleak. With mass unemployment and a moribund economy, the Egyptian people seem inclined to give Marshal al-Sisi an opportunity to turn things around. He will face great difficulty doing so, however, because so much of the Egyptian economy is owned by the military, his base of power. The other generals seem unlikely to accept passively new competition with their businesses. The long standing tradition of using state power to harass businesses owned by the regime's critics will similarly obstruct economic progress. Gulf money can and probably will buy Marshal al-Sisi some breathing space, but sooner rather than later the Egyptian people are likely to rise up again.
So what now? Many of our best opportunities are behind us. Our repeated opportunistic embrace of opponents of democracy has badly tarnished our image on the Egyptian street, while Gulf money and Chinese and Russian offers of arms have reduced our leverage sharply. Any grand U.S. scheme to pick winners in Egypt will surely backfire. But we can and should keep steady pressure on Marshal al-Sisi to release secular democrats and leave open a space for genuine political discourse. And we can redirect our aid to support reviving the Egyptian economy rather than further enriching the generals.
David Super teaches law at Georgetown. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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