A cui bono conspiratorial mindset has taken hold. The United States says it supports a "full transition" to democracy. The Brotherhood, being the largest, best-organized party in Egypt, naturally stands to benefit most from such a transition. This, in turn, must mean that the United States supports the Brotherhood. In other words, more democracy means more Islamism, so anyone who advocates the former is suspected of supporting the latter. The very notion of democracy is becoming politicized.
The Brotherhood, the closest thing Egypt has to a majority party, is, unsurprisingly, a rather staunch advocate of majority rule. On this point, Morsy and other leading Brothers have straddled the fine line between democracy and demagoguery. For many Egyptians, Morsy's dramatic, chant-like chorus of "there is no power above the people" during a June 29 speech in Tahrir Square was a stirring ode to popular sovereignty. For others, it was a sign that the Brotherhood -- having won 47 percent and 52 percent in parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively -- felt it had the right to implement its vision, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it.
Turkey's experience is instructive here, though less as a model than a cautionary tale. Upon assuming power in 2002, the Islamically oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) understood that the best way to promote religion in public life was to promote democracy, which would allow it to wrest power away from Turkey's entrenched secular establishment. Despite the anti-Western orientation of its Islamist predecessors, the AKP latched on to the European Union accession process, which required Turkey to reduce the powers of the military and lift restrictions on freedom of expression, including on religious issues. It was odd that those three things went together -- better relations with the West, democracy, and Islamization -- but in Turkey's case they did.
But just like in Egypt, the backlash from Turkey's liberals was harsh. The opposition Republican People's Party and other secularists adopted an increasingly anti-American and anti-European posture, resisting many of the reforms the AKP was hoping to implement. The staunchly secular military, which had traditionally seen itself as a Europeanizing force in Turkish politics, also underwent a striking evolution. As Turkish scholar M. Hakan Yavuz noted in a 2002 article, "One of the newest characteristics of the Turkish military in the late 1990s is its willingness to employ anti-Western rhetoric and accuse opponents of being the 'tools of Europe' because of growing pressure from the European Union on human rights and the need for civilian control."
EU accession was no longer in the interests of the military, and perhaps it never really was. In Turkey, like in Egypt, more democracy meant, inevitably, more religion. Turkey's secular establishment turned out to be much more secular than it was democratic -- and Egypt is looking as if it may go down the same path.
The question is often posed: Do Islamists really believe in democracy? The more relevant matter for Egypt, at least for now, is to understand how would-be democrats like Gad and Harb have strayed from the very ideals they claimed to be fighting for.
Some blame, of course, must be laid at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood. As Egypt's most powerful political force, the movement had a responsibility to rise above partisanship and do more to reassure its skeptics. But the Brotherhood thought it was strong enough to dismiss liberals, and liberals were too weak to put up a fight through the electoral process. What sometimes seems like a massive ideological divide is really about power.
So too is the increasingly bizarre speculation about America's hidden designs in Egypt. Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, writes that conspiracy theories are "the ultimate refuge of the powerless." So in failing to win -- and feeling like an embattled minority in the process -- liberals have looked to the United States and other unnamed "foreign hands" to explain the rise of their Islamist opponents.
The irony is that the Obama administration, while willing to engage the Brotherhood, has itself been wary of the Islamists' rise to power. For much of the transition, the United States stood by the SCAF, the ruling military junta and the Brotherhood's archrival. The Egyptian military was a known quantity, the linchpin of the 30-year U.S.-Egypt relationship and a force for regional stability. The generals, the thinking went, would ensure that vital American interests were protected. When SCAF waged an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and threatened several American NGO workers with jail time, the United States sought a face-saving compromise and kept the $1.3 billion in annual military aid flowing. Even in her recent visit, Clinton avoided any direct criticism of SCAF, despite the latter staging an effective coup -- dissolving the democratically elected parliament and stripping the presidency of its powers -- just weeks prior.
The hostility of Egypt's secular establishment presents the United States with something of a dilemma. If it ever does get serious about pressuring the military and promoting democracy in Egypt, the more liberals -- perhaps its most natural allies -- will cry foul. This no-win situation will likely persuade U.S. policymakers that it's better to stay away and do less rather than more. In this sense, liberal conspiracy theories, as absurd and creative as they might be, may be hitting their mark -- pushing the United States and other outside actors out of Egypt. That is probably good for Egypt's liberals, but not necessarily for Egypt.