National Press Club

Experts say Egyptian democracy possible but unlikely in current political climate

August 28, 2013 | By Marie Robey Wood |

A panel of experts in Middle East policy said democracy is still possible, but unlikely in the current political climage, at a National Press Club's Newsmakers conference on Sept. 27.

Panelists said the military leadership continues to lead the country down a path toward instability, violence and economic upheaval.

Michelle Dunne of the Atlantic Council believes the US missed opportunities to promote participatory democracy in the country. According to her, the US has always stayed close to whomever is in power, whether it be Mubarak, the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, or back to the current military. She said the US should have protested when Morsi started to pass unpopular edicts without the consent of the Egyptians themselves.

Dunne also believes that the US should have cut off its assistance at the beginning of the recent military coup. US failure to exert its influence when it could have during earlier eras decreases our credibility: “Now when we try to step forward it is leading to a lot of confusion in Egypt and leaves our country open to charges of hypocrisy,” she said.

Another problem, according to Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, is the basic misunderstanding of the causes of instability in the region: “ ...the president and others think that stability won't return to the Middle East until governments are more transparent, responsive and accountable – in other words, more democratic.” But many Middle Eastern governments see the demand of democratization coming from below in the Arab world as itself a source for instability, she said. “It has made them wary about taking even limited steps toward domestic reform for fear that if you give them an inch they will demand a mile,” she said.

Dunne said that as we talk about US policy and the policy of other regional actors toward Egypt we have to remember that there is an underlying social reality that drove the revolutions of 2011.“It's about demographics, the economy, and technology. These are trends that have been building up over the years and all of the governments in the region have to take account of these trends and adapt to them,” she said, adding that “It's the need of institutions, especially government institutions, to adapt to this new social reality. The quicker they recognize that and make these adjustments, it will open up and give people a voice, and the sooner the region will stabilize.”

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, believes that we have to expect further changes in Egypt. “The US has made mistakes repeatedly,” he said, “and US policy in Egypt must fundamentally shift.” He thinks that President Obama's recent remarks about a shift, if implemented, will be a positive outcome. However, earlier in May 2011, the president boldly declared that “Support of democratic principles in Egypt will be a priority for this country.” According to McInerney, “We haven't seen that reflected in US policy since then.” He fears that current remarks also will not be backed up by US policy.

Nevertheless, if we threaten to cut off assistance, whether small economic assistance or larger military assistance, we can't expect Egypt to reverse course and change all its policies, Dunne said. However, she believes that the US still has influence – in trade cooperation, shared technology, and shared military exercises and should use that influence as well.

The Obama Administration stated on Aug. 23 that it is is currently reviewing US assistance to Egypt. According to Dunne, “Most Americans would say we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions we think run contrary to our values and our ideals. We have to start thinking not only of what's in the best interest of the Egyptian people but also what is in the best interests of the United States.”

No matter what happens, all the panel participants agreed that the United States must expect further changes in Egypt – the latest upheaval won't be the last.