The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were deeply invested in fostering democracy in the Arab world—in two radically different ways. Under the latter, argues Samuel Tadros, and at least in Egypt these efforts led nowhere. When Egyptians took to the streets in 2011, President Obama saw a hope for a transition from dictatorship to democracy: a hope that led to disastrous policy decisions. Tadros provides a trenchant analysis of American mistakes:
[Once it seemed likely that Hosni Mubarak would resign, the Obama] administration turned to history, not of Egypt but of faraway lands. As the New York Times wrote, “Obama ordered staff members to study transitions in 50 to 60 countries to find precedents for those under way in Tunisia and Egypt. They found that Egypt [was] analogous to South Korea, the Philippines, and Chile.”
The whole undertaking was remarkable. The belief that what Egypt was witnessing was a transition to democracy and not the collapse of state institutions framed the discussion from the very beginning and determined the framework of the policy that would be adopted. The suggestion that developments in the Arabic-speaking world would follow those elsewhere betrayed a mindset that did not view culture, history, or religion as relevant. . . .
Tadros suggests that rather than engaging in pipe-dreams about Egyptian democracy, the U.S. can take concrete steps to encourage the educational reform that is a prerequisite not only to democracy but even to a functioning and more benevolent dictatorship:
For the past decade, democracy-promotion efforts in the broader Middle East have focused on . . . programs devoted to civil society. . . . Despite heavy investment in civil society, as the story of the country’s struggles during the past few years illustrates, social capital did not transform into political capital. The deficit resulted from the missing first ingredient: human capital.
The state of Egyptian education is dismal, ranking among the worst in the world. The Egyptian educational system does not produce the human capital necessary for a modern state to function, nor does it prepare graduates for a modernized economy. The educational system does not encourage free inquiry; Egyptian students learn very little about the world beyond Egypt, world religions, ideas, or history. The Trump administration should partner with Egypt to reform its educational system. . . .
An unreformed Egypt is destined to be in a state of continued decline. A country divided between those who believe that President Sisi’s mother is Jewish, which makes him an agent of the grand Jewish conspiracy, and those who believe that the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna’s father was Jewish and, hence, that he was an agent of the grand Jewish conspiracy, is not going to transition to democracy.