Is Egypt Really “Transition[ing] to Democracy”?

Walter Russell Mead notes President Obama’s statement on the coup in Egypt, and the following passage from that statement in particular:

No transition to democracy comes without difficulty, but in the end it must stay true to the will of the people. An honest, capable and representative government is what ordinary Egyptians seek and what they deserve. The longstanding partnership between the United States and Egypt is based on shared interests and values, and we will continue to work with the Egyptian people to ensure that Egypt’s transition to democracy succeeds.

Quite properly, Mead pounces:

One hopes the President understands what drivel this is. It is not at all clear that Egypt is in the midst of a transition to democracy. It is in the midst of a crisis of authority and has been wallowing for some time in a damaging crisis of governance, but is Egypt really in a transition to democracy? And is democracy really what “ordinary” Egyptians want?

Right now one suspects that most Egyptians fear that the country could be in a transition to anarchy, and that what ordinary Egyptians (who are extremely poor by US standards and earn their bread by the sweat of their brow with very little cushion against illness or a bad day at the market) want most of all right now is security. They aren’t fretting so much about when they will have a government more like Norway’s as they are terrified that their country is sliding in the direction of Libya, Syria or Iraq.

As is often the case, Washington policymakers seem to be paying too much attention to the glibbest of political scientists and the vaporings of the Davoisie. Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain. What’s happening in Egypt isn’t the robust flowering of a civil society so dynamic and so democratic that it can no longer be held back by dictatorial power.

Virtually every policeman and government official in the country takes bribes. Most journalists have lied for pay or worked comfortably within the confines of a heavily censored press all their careers. The Interior Ministry has files, often stuffed with incriminating or humiliating information about most of the political class. The legal system bowed like a reed before the wind of the Mubarak government’s will, and nothing about the character of its members has changed. The business class serves the political powers; the Copts by and large will bow to the will of any authority willing to protect them.

And Americans should not deceive themselves. While some of Morsi’s failure was the result of overreaching and dumb choices on his part, he faced a capital strike and an intense campaign of passive resistance by a government and business establishment backed by an army in bed with both groups. Their strategy was to bring Morsi down by sabotaging the economy, frustrating his policies and isolating his appointees. Although Egypt’s liberals supported the effort out of fear of the Islamists, the strategy had nothing to do with a transition to democracy, and it worked.

This is not to say that Morsi or his movement had a viable alternative policy or governance model for Egypt. They didn’t. The Muslim Brotherhood had no clue how Egypt could be governed, and a combination of incompetence, corruption, factionalism and religious dogmatism began to wreck Morsi’s government from Day One.

If American policy toward Egypt is based on the assumption that Egypt is having a “messy transition” to democracy and that we must shepherd the poor dears to the broad sunny uplands, encouraging when they do well, chiding when they misstep, Washington will keep looking foolish and our influence will continue to fade. If that is the approach our foolishness compels us to take, look for more cases in which American good intentions just make us more hated—not because we are wicked, but because we are clueless.