After the peaceful mass uprising that toppled one of the world’s oldest autocracies, it is now possible to imagine the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt—the most important country in the Arab world. The very possibility of it marks an historic turning point for the entire region. However, there is a long and often treacherous distance between the demise of an authoritarian regime and the rise of a democracy.
With no experience of democracy in recent decades, and no apparent government leadership that is committed to bringing it about, Egypt’s transition faces more formidable challenges than the transitions that led to democracy in recent decades in countries like Spain, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Indonesia, and Ukraine. (Which isn’t to say these were easy: We forget how difficult each of these transitions seemed at the time, and how fraught they were with dangers and uncertainties.) With an energized civil society and deep resources of youthful talent, creativity, and mobilizing skill, Egypt has a real chance to get to democracy in the next few years. But doing so will require a keen analysis of the numerous potential traps that could sandbag the process.