WHILE A QUICK election calendar adopted by Egyptian voters earlier this month came as a disappointment to the Facebook revolutionaries who toppled Hosni Mubarak, the referendum holds an important message for these young, secular activists and for US policy makers as well: A durable democracy can’t be built in a single election cycle and will require the Egyptian public’s vigilance and engagement for years to come.
Egyptian voters overwhelmingly adopted eight amendments to the country’s constitution. While prodemocracy activists supported some amendments — including ones allowing new political parties and limiting a future president to two terms — a revised schedule calling for parliamentary elections in September and a presidential vote by November offers little time for new groups to organize. So there are rising fears among educated urban young people that their victory over the old autocracy may be snatched from them by the Muslim Brotherhood and a regrouped version of the old regime’s National Democratic Party, the only political groups with national organizations and the ability to wage an electoral fight right away.
Both Egyptian activists and the Obama administration must be prepared to see the coming elections produce a government that reflects more the Egypt of pious rural villagers than the students and young professionals who congregated in Tahrir Square last month. Fearing such an outcome, Egypt’s Coptic Christians also voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional amendments.
But even if religious conservatives and elements of Mubarak’s old guard do win majorities in the coming parliamentary and presidential balloting, Egypt’s secular liberals and Christians need not abandon hope. Nor should Americans wishing to see Egypt become a vibrant democracy. As long as this year’s elections are not the last, there will be other chances for the original revolutionaries to compete for power and, eventually, to build the liberal democratic state for which they risked their lives.