American embarrassment about past acquiescence to dictatorships and military coups is widespread. It is a major theme of high school history textbooks and college courses on foreign policy. In recent decades, leaders of both parties have tried to push U.S. policy in a different direction. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States lent support to democratic movements that toppled “friendly” dictatorships in the Philippines, Korea, Haiti and elsewhere (though not in the Middle East). The Clinton administration worked to hold the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe to high democratic standards. The George W. Bush administration tried, albeit unevenly, to reshape American relations with the dictatorships of the Arab world, particularly Egypt. Across the ideological spectrum, one of the big lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was that dictatorships helped breed terrorism and that the best cure would be an Arab political opening. Obama embraced that opening when it came and thus cautiously embraced the broad post-Cold War consensus.
Yet how quickly that consensus has crumbled in the face of its first difficult test — the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. And yes, that was a very difficult test. Morsi was not only an incompetent ruler but also in many ways an undemocratic one. He imposed restrictions on the media and excluded the opposition from important constitutional decisions. He ruled not so much as a dictator but as a majoritarian, which often amounted to the same thing. With a majority in parliament and a large national following, and with no experience whatsoever in the give-and-take of democratic governance, Morsi failed in the elementary task of creating a system of compromise, inclusiveness, and checks and balances. He was the opposite of a Mandela. He also failed as a manager of the national economy, unwilling to make an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and to carry out difficult but necessary economic reforms.
For his incompetence, he deserved to be voted out of office at the next election. For his majoritarian and undemocratic practices, he deserved to be placed under sustained domestic and international pressure, especially by the United States, the leading provider of aid to Egypt. He deserved to have the United States not only suspend its bilateral aid to Egypt but also block any IMF agreement until he entered into a meaningful, substantive dialogue with his political opponents, including on amending the flawed constitution he rammed through in December as well as electoral law. He ought to have been ostracized and isolated by the international democratic community. Morsi is certainly not the only democratically elected leader to have acted undemocratically in recent years, and these are the kinds of actions the United States and other democracies have generally taken in response. And all this would have been a great deal more pressure than Hosni Mubarak ever faced except in the final two weeks of his 30-year rule.
But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup.