With violence threatening to destroy Egypt’s fledgling democracy, a growing number of voices there and abroad are calling on the U.S. to take a stronger, more public stand in favor of the secular opposition and against President Mohamed Mursi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
For now, the U.S. would be wise to resist these calls. It would probably be pilloried for any position it took, whether backing an Islamist government with authoritarian reflexes or a secular minority that wants to unseat a party that beat it in free elections. As the military theorist Anthony Cordesman wrote this week in a paper about upheavals in the Muslim world, the U.S. can’t hope to control the outcome of what is at root a contest within Islam.
For now, there should be a single goal: to stabilize Egypt enough that elections this spring can give the country a shot at its first truly representative government. The U.S. and its allies in Europe and the region should do no more than quietly push a message of compromise, building on the Jan. 31 agreement by Egypt’s leading political figures to renounce violence “in all its shapes and forms” and to bridge the gulf that has opened between parts of society.
Egypt’s Islamist government has tried to use election victories to shape the constitution and society so that they conform with the party’s religious beliefs. In doing so, Mursi has polarized the nation and forgotten that the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak was at root a cry for jobs and human dignity, not for Shariah law. Since he took over, the economy has deteriorated, sparking riots and violence, which in turn have deterred the investors and tourists that Egypt needs to grow.
Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have until now failed to grasp that winners can’t take all in divided, transitional democracies such as Egypt -- they are too fragile. Nelson Mandela understood this in South Africa. Mursi appears not to.
This is why Defense Minister Abdelfatah Al-Seesi took to the armed forces’ Facebook page this week, warning that the disagreement between Egypt’s Islamist government and secular opposition on how to run the country “may lead to the collapse of the state.”
Al-Seesi was on the money. Democracy is doomed unless Egypt’s ruling and opposition parties start acting as if they are living in one. A good place to start would be with Mursi giving all parties a role in some process to reopen the new constitution for changes. Opposition leaders would be wise to drop their laundry list of conditions before agreeing to negotiate with the government.
The alternatives are depressing. Egypt’s generals may not want to take over the business of government again, but they see themselves as guardians of the state and will intervene if they think it’s necessary. The possibility that the Arab world’s most populous country might revert to a long period of de facto military rule, glossed by a series of unstable civilian governments -- a la Pakistan, or until recently Turkey -- is a real one.
The bottom line for Egypt’s leaders is that only when the streets are calm will tourists return and the International Monetary Fund release a much delayed $4.8 billion infusion. Both are critical to restarting the economy and drawing the investment needed to create jobs. That’s the one goal all of Egypt’s revolutionaries had in common. It’s also one the U.S. and other friends can help with.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org.