Obama’s Bind

Leslie H. Gelb on the Democracy-Elections Trap in Egypt

The Obama team wants a quick return to democracy in Egypt, but if that means hasty elections again, the result won’t be a real democracy, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

07.22.13 8:45 AM ET

There’s one big, fat foreign-policy lesson that cuts against the American grain: elections, no matter how free and fair, are only the icing on the democratic cake, not the cake itself; and if the icing comes before the cake is baked, the result is rarely true democracy.

Following the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, President Obama and the foreign-policy crowd began demanding immediate elections. The absolutely predictable winner soon thereafter was the organizational juggernaut of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which proceeded to turn their majority into an effective weapon against democracy. The hands-down losers were those charming, sincere, democracy-spouting youths of Tahrir Square, as well as standard Egyptian leaders trusted by knowledgeable Americans, all of whom were ill-organized. And if free and fair elections were held once again a month or six months or a year from now, the likely outcome would be the same.

The White House and State Department, thankfully, are aware of the predicament but feel trapped by political pressures at home to restore “democracy” and the situation on the ground in Egypt. Here’s the background:

The MB was and is the only political organization capable of turning out a massive number of voters. Morsi received just over 50 percent of the vote in the presidential runoff, and the MB dominated parliamentary elections. The “good” opposition was and is highly fragmented and unlikely to unite effectively. The MB used its majority to tie Egypt’s fragile democracy into knots. The economy fell apart, the “good” people took to the streets once again, the army intervened, and out went Morsi and company. And if Washington were to push the “victors” into a quickie election, the result probably would be the same, an MB victory.

This should be a familiar and predictable story. Remember, President George W. Bush and his advisers pushed the people of Gaza into quick elections in 2006 that were free and fair. Guess who won? Hamas, by far the best organized party, whose mottoes were filled with hatred of Israel and the United States. Guess what happened after Hamas won? Right again. They used their majority to set up a dictatorship. Forget democracy with rights and freedoms for all as long as Hamas is in control. And recall how badly Mr. Bush desired these elections and how little criticism was raised.

Free and fair elections honor and advance democracy only when they are built on democratic culture, society, and institutions—on solid laws, a free press, non-governmental organizations, sharp constitutional restraints on governmental power, and the firm rights of individuals. Without these underpinnings, elections are usually a sham. Americans were practicing democracy before the American Revolution. That’s why after the revolution, elections and democracy succeeded here. The French revolutionaries had little practice with democracy, and so they produced Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and Napoleon, and ultimately and ironically the return of the very Bourbon dynasty overthrown by the revolution in the first place.

Once upon a time, American leaders knew well how to help establish democracies abroad. Now mostly forgotten, but not so long ago, military dictators ruled South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey—just as Mubarak ran Egypt. American leaders did not use their influence with these dictators to hold elections (they already excelled at staging sham elections). Instead, Washington provided aid and twisted arms to craft better laws, viable political alternatives, and the undergirdings of democracy. After decades, the elections held in these countries meant something: rights were protected, and governmental power changed hands peacefully after elections. Turkey today under Prime Minister Erdogan causes worry, as he seems to be using his majority to Islamize his previously secular nation and to squash rights—just as Morsi was doing in Egypt.

Have no doubt about what Morsi was doing. He immunized his decisions from judicial review. He was squeezing and suppressing the rights of women and causing heartburn among non-Muslims. He strangled the free press and packed the organs of government with fellow Muslim Brothers.

It was hard to shed a tear for him when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest once again, many of the same charmers as two years ago. It wasn’t pleasant to watch the military shoot and break heads and lock up Morsi and friends. The general sense was that it had to be done and done now. Otherwise, Morsi would have established unstoppable control. Egyptian democrats might have run out of chances to establish a real democracy.

Despite the relief of Morsi’s departure, the Obama team finds itself in a bind. The American guardians of democracy charge the Egyptian military with staging an illegal coup, and they’re right. Further, they cite U.S. law that requires the termination of military aid to rulers who come to power by virtue of a coup against a democratically elected government. And they’re right on that account, too.

But while these guardians of democracy are right on the facts and the law, they’re wrong when it comes to common sense. They foolishly believe that cutting off that aid would compel the military to turn back the clock to Morsi and his free election. To know the Egyptian military is to realize it will not oblige. More likely, it would make noises or take steps to unnerve peace with Israel in the Sinai just to show us up. And trouble in the Sinai is the last thing Americans should want. In any event, the military will not help Morsi return to power.

Here the trap begins to snap on Mr. Obama. He can’t forever pretend that a coup isn’t a coup, and he surely doesn’t want to stop military aid and anger the Egyptian military. And on the other hand, he doesn’t want to press for new and early Egyptian elections—only to be saddled by another likely Morsi triumph.

Obama’s solution, and it’s probably the only decent choice he has, is to sidestep the call for early elections and instead set forth the less specific demand for an early return to democracy. And this is the right call. That is, it’s the right call if he backs it up with explanations to buy time. He needs to explain to Americans and Egyptians that it’s essential for them to focus on and try to expedite the creation of democratic institutions and culture—and then hold free and fair elections. Americans will understand the delay in elections, and there’s a good chance most Egyptians will as well. This route is the only way to give Egyptian democrats the chance to compete in a genuine democracy.