America is the New Egypt

Wiki kallerna

Photo by Wikipedia user Kallerna

America’s politicians are not much better than Egypt’s these days, squabbling and refusing to deal with big issues.  What must be done to fix the situation?

Apparently, when Americans think about Egypt, the first word that comes to mind is “pyramids”; at least, that’s what I heard at one of the many D.C. think tank events I attended during my time working on Egypt.  I get it: the pyramids are pretty awesome.  However, when I think of Egypt, I am sad to say that one of the first words that pops into my head is “dysfunctional”.

When I say dysfunctional, I am referring to the government, which since the 2011 revolution has gone from an interim military regime, to a mostly democratic one dominated by Islamists, and then back to an interim military regime.  If you like lots of plot twists, then Egypt is the place for you these days.  What the country really needs is a unity government full of technocrats who can put it back on track politically and economically, but that is easier said than done.

Unfortunately and completely predictably, the various factions vying for power have spent most of the time bickering with each other while showing little concern for pressing issues such as, “What happens when our foreign reserves run out?  How do we bring an end to the growing problem of sexual violence against women?  How do we construct a constitution or put together a parliament that can last longer than six months before getting thrown out by the constitutional court?”

Mohamed_Morsi 2012, Flickr Jonathan Rashad

Egypt President Mohamed Morsi at a press conference in 2012. Photo by Flickr user Jonathan Rashad

Yes, it is a fairly depressing and all too human situation.  Still, what bothers me most at this point isn’t that Egypt is having these political problems.  After all, no one expected the transition to democracy (if you can call it that) to be a smooth one.  What I find somewhat alarming is that the politicians here in the United States are beginning to remind me more and more of their Egyptian counterparts.

One of the main criticisms of the (now defunct) government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was that it did not take necessary steps to balance the country’s budget and put it on a firm fiscal course.  Perhaps the best example of this was the never ending negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a loan that would have helped meet some of the country’s short-term needs. (No such loan has been successfully negotiated to date.)

The problem with the IMF deal was that it came with strings attached: namely, the politicians in Cairo would have needed to make an effort to fix Egypt’s financial problems.  However, Gulf nations such as Qatar were happy to give Egypt loans without the same strings attached.  You don’t have to be a genius to see which one of those offers would be more appealing.

Senate_Democrats_Government_Shutdown_Press_Conference Wiki Senate Democrats

Senate Democrats Charles Schumer and Harry Reid make their case during the recent government shutdown negotiations. Photo by Wikipedia user Senate Democrats

Just as Egypt’s leaders have postponed or completely ignored difficult decisions on the financial front, so America’s politicians are notorious for “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to long-term budget issues.  Lately, this trend has grown even worse: there is so little agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Washington that they can only manage deals that last for a few months, hence all the continuing resolutions rather than annual budgets.  The reasoning behind these short-term agreements is presumably that political conditions may be more favorable a few months later, or that there will be less of a backlash for something that lasts such a short amount of time.  Why take the medicine today that you could leave until tomorrow, right?

Another problem that has been experienced with the various transition governments in Egypt over the past few years is a perceived lack of legitimacy.  When candidates allied with the Muslim Brotherhood gained a parliamentary majority along with the presidency, their political opponents grew very concerned.  For the approximately one year that Morsi and his acolytes were in power, their legitimacy was a topic of widespread debate.

No one really questioned that the majority of Egyptians voted for these people (though there have been some election boycotts by disgruntled opposition groups). Rather, the argument went that they were too extreme to be trusted, that they were finding numerous ways to exclude their opponents, and that any actions they took (such as crafting a constitution) were therefore invalid.

The fact is that while the Brotherhood officials may have been stretching the limits of legality and favoring more extreme positions, they were actually not tyrannical at all: they never had enough power to be tyrannical.  As Morsi’s eventual ouster by the military demonstrated, he was never the one who held the real power.  The judiciary and segments of the government bureaucracy, both of which included many holdovers from the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, seemed at times to be working at cross purposes to the president.  Morsi lacked the political capital and goodwill that was necessary to make big changes in Egypt, and as a result he ultimately failed.

Flickr John Sonderman

The Lincoln Memorial was one of many sites closed during the U.S. government shutdown. Photo by Flickr user John Sonderman

In the U.S., some of President Obama’s opponents on the right have attempted to delegitimize him by labeling him as a socialist and claiming his birth certificate is a fake.  However, that is not the biggest obstacle that Obama has faced in this area.  More trying have been the continuous attacks on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which he worked so hard to pass.  Conservatives at both the federal and state levels have worked to prevent its passage, defund it, and/or not implement it.  Even a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the law has done little to convince those on the right that it is constitutionally valid.

Obama spent practically all of the goodwill he had in Congress getting the healthcare bill passed.  Ever since that time, he has been working with a decreased amount of political capital.  Getting even the most simple resolution passed by both houses of Congress has become a Herculean feat.  Much like Egypt’s President Morsi, President Obama has suffered from a continual lack of respect or perceived legitimacy.

Of course, things are not as severe in the U.S. as they have been in Egypt: the bureaucracy does not appear to be secretly hoping for Obama’s demise, and I do not anticipate that the military is about to unseat the president and put him under house arrest; but if that is the standard for success, then we are in big trouble.  In such cases, it is always possible to blame ruling and opposition parties for the breakdown in constructive relations, but regardless of who is responsible, it is clear that a government does not function well when it has lost its political capital.

Anti_Morsi_Protest_in_Down_Town_Cairo_31_august_2012, Wiki Gigi Ibrahim

An anti-Morsi protest in Cairo last year. Photo by Wikipedia user Gigi Ibrahim

Another aspect of the political situation in Egypt which has been particularly striking is the degree of political polarization.  Ever since the revolution, Cairo has been rocked by dueling protests both for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, along with protests for and against the military council.  At times, things have gotten so severe that some analysts have raised concerns that Egypt may end up slipping into a period of civil war just like Syria.

The political atmosphere in Washington may not have deteriorated to the same degree, but there is no question that U.S. politics is heavily partisan at the present time.  When the government has to shut down for two weeks because the two main political parties are incapable of reaching a compromise deal that will only last a few months, you know that the environment is intensely partisan.

I will not claim that there was some bygone era in congressional history when things were rosy.  After all, things cannot be worse than they were during the actual U.S. Civil War, when one half of the country took up arms against the other.  Still, many of the long-term members of Congress who used to be able to hammer out bipartisan deals have departed in recent years, either because they were getting old, getting sick of the situation, or getting challenged by a more extreme member of their own party in a primary race.  Combined with the problem of highly gerrymandered congressional districts, this trend has helped to create the no-compromise bunch of elected representatives we have today.

In both countries, political uncertainty has been bad for business.  Egypt’s economy, which was experiencing a period of growth prior to the 2011 revolution, has floundered ever since.  The U.S. credit rating was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s after the debt ceiling debacle in 2011, and this month’s shutdown has caused Fitch to put America on notice that it may follow suit.  Although the federal government’s bottom line will not shift much due to the shutdown, analysts estimate that the overall cost to the U.S. economy has been about $24 billion.

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as the inventors of liberal democracy (“liberal” in the classical sense of the word), or at least the first true adopters.  It is easy for us to believe that our democratic institutions are so old, our constitutional rights so firm, and our national ideals so universally accepted that the kind of chaos breaking out in Egypt could never happen here.  While it is true that we are a long way from reaching that point, we need to realize that democracy does not come with a lifetime guarantee.

Even with all its flaws, our government has historically been fairly good at delivering for the country’s citizens and creating an environment in which our economy can flourish, at least in comparison to the rest of the world.  The democratic ideals we cherish – the very things that allow our government to function properly – must not be taken for granted.  If we do not continually strive to uphold them, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to fall by the wayside.

2010 Wiki WH Pete Souza

Back in 2010, these Republican and Democratic leaders appeared to be at least minimally cordial during a meeting at the White House. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

But how does one uphold democratic ideals?  I wish it was as easy as setting off some fireworks on the Fourth of July, going to vote once every four years, and singing the national anthem at sporting events.  Democracy requires both our citizens and our leaders to be willing to give as well as get.  It does not require us to adopt anyone’s opinion, but it does require us to respect anyone’s right to have an opinion.  Democracy is not built on grand speeches and political victories, though those are certainly nice.  Democracy is built on the fine art of compromise.

If we consider compromise to be “selling out” or “caving in” rather than a realistic attempt to get something in return for something else, we are actually putting the country’s well being in jeopardy.  In a pluralistic society, only those who can win over opponents will ever create lasting change, not those who attempt to impose their will on the rest of the population.  Democracy is not about tyranny of the majority or the minority.  We have to find a way to bend without breaking.

I have hope for both the United States and Egypt, because I think that both nations are better than their politicians.  The comparison to Egypt in the political sense is not meant to be complimentary, but let’s think back to those pyramids for a second.  For thousands of years, they have stood as a monument to what human beings can achieve when they work together.  America’s greatest monument is not a building or statue, but rather our democratic form of government.

If we want it to survive as long as the pyramids, we will have to put in just as much blood, sweat, and tears as those ancient Egyptians.  We will need to work together with Americans of all political stripes.  We must never abandon our focus on what is truly important: the America that we want future generations to experience.  Let’s not leave our children a legacy of broken government and political rancor.  Let’s leave them something that will make them truly proud.