Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Morsi and Beyond

The Enduring Mirage of the Arab Spring

A Dose of Realism in Egypt

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rests his hands on barbed wire fence.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rests his hands on barbed wire fence near Republican Guard headquarters in Nasr City, a suburb of Cairo July 19, 2013. Thousands of Morsi supporters took to the streets of several Egyptian cities on Friday to demand that the military reinstate the country's first freely elected leader. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

Egypt used to be a poster child for those who believed that the Arab uprising would usher in a new wave of democracy. When Egyptians dethroned former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and held elections just over a year later, some Western politicians were exuberant. Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, for example, referred to the vote as “historic,” marking “another important milestone in [Egypt’s] transition to democracy.”

Faced with the July 2013 military coup that deposed Mubarak’s presidential successor, Mohamed Morsi, Western politicians might be inclined to turn away from Egypt in frustration. But, as I argued in “The Mirage of the Arab Spring,” U.S. policy should not be hamstrung by a narrow focus on democratization. More than ever, the United States and its allies should think first about protecting their vital strategic interests in Egypt and the region. 

For those surprised by the military coup, it is worth remembering that democracy was never the Egyptian protesters’ most important goal. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, most Egyptians were more interested in a stronger economy, a more robust judiciary, and improved law and order than in elections and freedom of speech. Under Morsi, democracy did little to stop dwindling foreign investment, disruptions in manufacturing, declines in tourism, and general lawlessness. Many Egyptians, as always, wanted to feed their families first and came to believe that ousting Morsi was the first step.  

By May 2013, only 30 percent of Egyptians believed the country was headed in the right direction, down from 53 percent in 2012 and 65 percent in 2011, according to the same Pew Research Center Poll. Roughly three-quarters of Egyptians said that the economy was in bad shape, and only 39 percent of Egyptians believed that they were better off since Mubarak’s departure.

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