Cyr: Egypt's democracy must be regarded in regional terms

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks to reporters during Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt. (July 13, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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"I'm very keen on having true freedom," Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has just declared in an interview with Time magazine, but his aggressive actions belie those words.

The recently elected chief executive also just decreed emergency supremacy over the nation's courts, as a special assembly completed a draft national constitution.

The result has been widespread growing popular protests, but Morsi presses ahead in the face of attacks for moving toward an Islamist dictatorship. Liberal and Christian members of the ruling party walked out of the assembly, voting with their feet.

This occurs in the context of regional instability, which involves combat between Israel and Hamas, revolution in Syria, related violence between that country and Turkey, plus ongoing anxiety over Iran nuclear development. Egypt moreover plays a pivotal geopolitical role, thanks to the Suez Canal, a vital world trade route.

In evaluating these events, historical context is especially important, and the scholarship of Harvard professor of political science Samuel P. Huntington is instructive. His most well-known book is the 1998 bestseller "Clash of Civilizations," which argues our contemporary world is increasingly defined by intense conflicts between fundamentally different cultures.

However, another book by Huntington is more useful: "The Third Wave -- Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century," published in 1991, argues there is a two-century trend of global movement toward democracy, interrupted by resurgence of dictatorship.

The first wave was spurred by the American and French revolutions, and extended from the 1820s to the 1920s. The years after World War I brought anti-democratic reaction favoring varieties of communism and fascism. This in part reflected the unprecedented casualties and costs of that terrible war.

The second democratic wave began in the midst of World War II and continued into the 1960s. Representation was spurred by defeat of totalitarian Axis powers, and encouraged by postwar economic developments.

However, especially in Latin America, strong reactions developed against uncertain and unfamiliar democratic institutions. Many new nations that had been European colonies became dictatorships.

The third wave toward democracy began in 1974 with collapse of military dictatorships in Portugal and Greece. Over the next 15 years, democracy was established in more than 30 countries, and the Soviet bloc began to collapse. The Arab Spring is the latest development.

In the Middle East and in particular regarding Egypt, the U.S. role has been vital. Through extraordinary determination, President Jimmy Carter was able to broker the Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel, which remains in place.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains the most serious and dangerous of confrontations in the unstable region. President Dwight Eisenhower used economic leverage and astute diplomacy decisively to destroy a secretly planned old-style colonial military effort by Britain, France and Israel to recapture the Suez Canal, which had been seized by Egypt's new nationalist regime.

As usual, Ike's instincts were on target, and American-Israeli relations eventually gained in consequence. As this implies, there is no need for special anxiety in Washington because relations with ally Israel recently have been strained. Our other close ally Turkey remains a bridge to Israel despite their troubled relations, and an increasingly influential regional power.

There is also no need for special anxiety about Egypt, which joins a long list of nations struggling to develop democracy. The deep roots of democratic institutions put the United States solidly in a major mainstream of history; President Barack Obama's re-election provides opportunity for fresh leadership.

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Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.

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