The whole world celebrated with Egyptian protesters when longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February of 2011. The mystique of authority had been broken. Eight months later, when protesters amassed again to call for an end to military rule, the world cheered again. But now that millions of protesters have amassed once again to call for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s democratically elected president, Americans — and the Obama administration in particular — should feel some unease at this pattern.
To be sure, Morsi has displayed stunning incompetence at dealing with Egypt’s economic and political problems. Fledgling democracies need farsighted leaders who restrain themselves for the greater good; Morsi took too much power for himself and broke his promise to represent all Egyptians. His party, the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to protect secular views, religious minorities, and women.
But Morsi’s departure won’t solve the fuel shortages and electricity outages that have frustrated the population. Nor will it solve a deepening political crisis. Indeed, driving Morsi from power now will only entrench the political polarization, pitting the Brotherhood against a fractured secular opposition.
Morsi ought to admit his mistakes publicly and surrender many of the powers that he has taken for himself. The United States should use its diplomatic leverage to urge him in that direction. But an abrupt resignation of an elected leader would send a worrisome message. Instead, Morsi and Egypt’s military leadership should announce new parliamentary elections. One reason he has had so much power is that the courts dismissed the parliament.
Egypt needs a healthy, democratic forum where Islamists and secular parties can sort through their differences. Continuing these debates in the street — in the form of demonstrations — will only lead to more instability. Opposition groups should understand that they undermine their own democratic credentials when they call for new presidential elections while dismissing the results of the previous one.
The Obama administration should work with all sides to ensure a path to elections that can create a government capable of tackling Egypt’s formidable problems. Once that exists, Egyptians ought to respect it. Stable governments, it turns out, need a little mystique.