Should America still be trying to promote democracy abroad -- especially when its own is so dysfunctional?
This question has been nagging at me since the Obama administration announced a partial freeze on military aid to Egypt this month. The aim: to (belatedly) display U.S. displeasure over the Egyptian military's bloody ouster of an elected president in July. (The aid will be restored if Egypt makes progress toward an "inclusive" elected government.)
The cutoff was avidly pushed by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress (even as they were sliding toward a possible debt default). But rather than advance Egyptian democracy, the aid cutoff is more likely to strengthen antidemocratic forces in that country.
It's hard to promote democracy at a time when Egyptian democrats are in short supply.
Let me explain by recounting a recent conversation I had in Philadelphia with Dalia Ziada, an award-winning Egyptian civic activist and participant in the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution, who was passing through on a speaking tour. A political liberal, she is also an observant Muslim who wears an elegant head scarf and is executive director of the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center, which promotes human rights in the Arab world.
I first met Ziada in Cairo, just after Hosni Mubarak's fall, and recall the excitement with which she described helping to organize nonviolent protests. She was full of hope that the youth revolution would promote democracy and women's rights, and was a leading campaigner to end the widespread, traditional Egyptian cultural practice of genital mutilation of young girls.
No one could fit the profile of a small-"d" democrat better than Ziada. But she now endorses the military's coup against a president -- the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi -- who was chosen in a free and fair election. She insists that the huge anti-Morsi demonstrations -- called by the military just before the coup -- represented the popular Egyptian will, which rejected Morsi's efforts to Islamicize society and his economic failures.
As for the coup: "What happened is a step backward, but (was necessary) to restart on the right foot," she argues. "The people had to say no before it was too late. It was like going back to right after 2011 and starting again."
To her, the military's leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is a hero. She believes in the military's pledge to hold elections next year.
So the U.S. aid cutoff -- meant to pressure the military to include all factions in future elections -- doesn't resonate with Ziada. U.S. officials argue that excluding Islamist parties -- which won 75 percent of the seats in the last parliamentary elections and more than 51 percent of the presidential vote -- will make Egypt unstable, especially since the Brotherhood's core support probably amounts to 20 percent of the votes.
Ziada agrees there's a risk, but says "for now (inclusion) is very difficult." Excluding Brotherhood candidates could lead some to turn to terrorism, as happened in the 1990s, but she says "the people are against terrorism, and the military will minimize the damage."
At this point, Ziada says, people "value stability first, while human rights and civic rights come second. The country knows it must go back to normality and then it can press for human rights."
So here you have it. Many of the young folks who made the 2011 revolution, like Ziada, are openly supporting the military. Partly that's from fear of Islamicization. It's also from recognition that they were never as well-organized as the Brotherhood, and might not have been able to beat them at the next polls.
But Egyptian hostility to the aid cutoff has broader roots. The young, secular activists who organized the massive anti-Morsi demonstrations this summer are not liberals. Their Tamarod (rebel) movement reveres Gamal Abdel Nasser, the wildly popular leftist military dictator of the 1960s.
In hopes of finding a new Nasser, a group of Tamarod leaders has just endorsed el-Sissi (now the defense minister) as their presidential candidate.
Egypt is yearning for a hero, and many ordinary people think only a strongman can restore stability and the economy. So Sissi-mania is on the rise, along with a wave of Egyptian nationalism. In this climate, the U.S. aid cutoff can be used to whip up anti-Americanism and build support for a new strongman.
To summarize: The aid cutoff won't resonate with the bulk of Egyptians who love el-Sissi, want stability, and now disdain the Brotherhood. The military, which views the Brothers as an existential threat, won't agree to let them back into the political system.
That's apart from the security interests the administration shares with the Egyptian military -- maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and repressing the terror threat in the Sinai.
It makes little sense for U.S. legislators to press for inclusive democracy in Egypt at a moment when most Egyptians reject the concept. Better to focus on making democracy work at home.
Contact Trudy Rubin at email@example.com.