After the fall of France in 1940, the poet George Faludy escaped to Morocco. Walking by the sea, he saw some cliffs high above the shore. They seemed picturesque but inaccessible.
An old Arab was passing with his donkey and Faludy turned to him. "How do you get up there?" he asked, pointing to the cliff.
The old man stopped and spat on the ground.
"You can't get to those cliffs," he replied, "because the accursed French never built a road."
In 1940, Morocco had been a French protectorate for 28 years. The seashore below the cliffs had been inhabited by human beings since the Stone Age. Blaming the French for not building a path in 28 years that the inhabitants hadn't built throughout the millennia before, summarized the region's political culture.
The world's largest Arab country now has a democratically elected leader. Is this good or bad? The word from the Obama White House is "good." How matters more than who; Egypt's new president has been put into office by the voters freely and fairly; let's celebrate.
Let's not. The news could be either good or bad, depending on the election's impact on Egypt's political culture. If Egypt elected a democrat, it might be good news; if Egypt elected an autocrat democratically, it's no news, just business as usual; and if Egypt elected a monster, it would be terrible news. The mere fact that he was democratically elected would no more reduce his monstrosity than Adolf Hitler's democratic election reduced his.
This is one of those things that everybody knows and somehow everybody forgets. The biggest monster in history -- I know there's stiff competition for the title, but I think Hitler wins -- anyway, this fiend didn't usurp, grab, putsch, coup, bomb, poison or coerce his way into power, but got democratically elected to it. This doesn't, of course, make democracy a bad thing; it just doesn't make it monster-proof. The thing beasts have in common with pets is that they can be freely and fairly voted into power.
There is no reason at this point to call Egypt's president-elect a monster, of course, or to compare him, God forbid, with Hitler. I'm not doing so. All I'm saying is if he were a monster, being elected wouldn't filter him out. Democracy doesn't screen calls. It just lets us elect whoever we like, including our own worst enemy, and puts us at the mercy of our own judgment.
All we can safely say at this point is that, whatever the judgment of Egypt's voters, they were never in any danger of electing a democrat. What characterized Egypt's epoch-making exercise in democracy was that, in the end, few if any democrats participated in it. We know this because the candidates pretty much said so. In this instance, the last thing we have to worry about is that they weren't telling the truth.
I, for one, am ready to take the word of Mohammed Morsi (51.7% of the vote) that he's an Islamist, and as such a theocrat rather than a democrat by definition. I also credit that friends of Mr. Morsi's barely (but squarely) defeated rival, former air marshal Ahmed Shafiq (48.3% of the vote), spent the last few days and nights using autocracy's master key to lock some doors before democracy opens them all for theocracy. Emasculating the presidency, just in case the wrong democrat wins it, may come in handy one day.
The voters of Egypt seem almost evenly divided between those willing to take a chance on the Muslim Brotherhood's program of Islamist militancy and therefore support Morsi, and those who fear economic turbulence, worry about their already pinched living standards, personal freedoms, American subsidies, and a fragile peace with Israel, and therefore support Shafiq's gentler, kinder version of Hosni Mubarak's autocracy -- essentially, things as they were before. What doesn't seem anywhere in evidence is a burgeoning of liberal democracy and the promise of an Arab Spring.
It's difficult to create democracy without democrats. Calling free elections won't do it. Given the current political culture in the Arab word, democratic charades are likely to facilitate theocrats and autocrats playing games of musical chairs, with each succeeding regime slightly (or a lot) worse than the one before. A Western optimist predicts change; a Middle East optimist predicts stasis.
Here's another Faludy fable. The tyrant can't sleep. Roaming the streets at dawn, he's astonished to hear an old woman praying at the shrine, asking the gods to give the tyrant a long life.
The tyrant can't believe his ears. "You must be the mother of madness," he says. "I'm a terrible tyrant. You should pray for my death."
"I tried that," she tells him, "When I was a young girl, your grandfather was the tyrant. He was bad, and I prayed for his death.
"The gods heard me. He died and your father took his place. He was worse than your grandfather, so I prayed for his death, too. He died and you came. You're easily the worst.
"I'm taking no more chances."