Week In Politics: Egypt And The Affordable Care Act

Robert Siegel talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss Egypt and the Affordable Care Act.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week's events in Egypt raise serious questions about democracy and U.S. interests in the world. Do free and fair elections define a democratic system or, as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN today, does the verdict of an impassioned public trump constitutional legitimacy?

MOHAMED ELBARADEI: Unfortunately, the president messed up and when you end up with 20 million people in the street, you know, of the state of mind that he needs to go and needs to go now, it's a sad state.

SIEGEL: And do tanks in the streets, however well received, represent an acceptable expenditure of U.S. military aid? Big questions fit for people who think seriously about politics and by happy coincidence, this being Friday, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times happen to be here. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: David, you wrote a column today distinguishing between valuing democratic forms, elections, and the substance of democratic behavior, inclusiveness, compromise. And you came down on the side of substance over form. How do you reconcile the Egyptian example, which includes tanks in the streets and the suspension of the constitution by the army?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. Frankly, some people and my former self used to think that if we just elect people who may be radicals, they'll have to look after the streets. They'll have to pick up the garbage. They'll have to do the normal job of governing and this will have the effect of moderating. They will have to pay attention to public opinion.

But I think at least in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, you have a group of people who are not democrats, who don't believe in democracy, who concentrated power, who have a fundamentally radical religious view of life, who oversaw the messing up of the constitution, who overruled the courts, who did all sorts of completely anti-democratic things.

So I think the view has to be - and I think this example illustrates it - that when you elect people who are fundamentally within the democratic realm, then you have to respect those elections. But when elections create leadership that is fundamentally anti-democratic, you are not serving democracy, you're not serving progress.

SIEGEL: But E.J., we and international bodies dispatch observers to make sure that elections are free and fair. We attach enormous importance to who wins elections.

DIONNE: I think the danger of David's position is it comes awfully close to saying, if you don't like how the elections turn out, you don't have to respect them. And I think that tanks in the street are pretty substantive, too. I don't mourn the - Morsi being thrown out of power. But I am pretty uneasy with this military coup, or any military coup, because when generals come in, they say, oh, we're going to have new elections and we're going to do this right, but they don't always have those elections.

Those elections can take years to come and, in the meantime, resentments build up. I agree this is a problem. Samer Shehata had a piece in the New York Times that I thought was very good, where you have democrats in the sense that they were well organized, the Muslim Brotherhood. They did win election, democrats who aren't liberals and liberals who aren't democrats and so it's a problem.

Could this turn out better than I'm saying now? Yes, I hope it does. But I'm very uneasy with this way of displacing the Muslim Brotherhood.

BROOKS: Yeah, I would just say, democracy is not just elections. I think we all understand that. It also includes civic institutions, but importantly, it includes mentality, a mentality of pluralism. And Republicans and Democrats sometime behave like beasts here, but they have that basic pluralistic mentality and that's true of 90 percent of the movements around the world.

But there is a small set of extremely radical people who fundamentally don't believe in democracy. I mean, the most famous case, and I'm not making this comparison, the most famous case is obviously electing Adolf Hitler.

SIEGEL: Who came to power through an election.

BROOKS: Who came to power through an election, was fundamentally an anti-democratic force. Now, I'm not drawing a parallel, but you do have to say that is not a democracy.

SIEGEL: Not every election - here's the dilemma facing the U.S. We give the Egyptian army over a billion dollars a year. It's part of the peace treaty with Israel. We count on Egypt to keep the peace along the Sinai border. But when U.S.-aided armies stage coups, by law, we cut off aid. So far, the U.S. government has avoided using the word coup to describe what's happened in Egypt. What do you do, E.J.? What should the U.S. do right now?

DIONNE: Well, my understanding is that as luck would have it for the Egyptian army, they've already gotten most of our payment.

SIEGEL: For this year, yeah.

DIONNE: Yeah, gotten the payment for this year, so there's a lot of time to work this out. A lot of people have been saying that President Obama should have intervened earlier, he should have been more critical of what Morsi was doing. Perhaps, but I think that U.S. meddling, even though I like it when the U.S. stands up for democracy and human rights, I'm not sure U.S. meddling would have helped, helped us here.

And I think for now we should be putting pressure on this new military government to really set up those institutions of democracy that they promise and move as quickly as they can to new elections. That ought to be what we stand for everywhere and I think that's true of Egypt, too.

SIEGEL: David?

BROOKS: I would say our policy has not been great. Most of what our State Department does is not foreign policy, it's foreign relations. It's building relationships with people who happen to be in power. And that's more or less what we did with the Morsi government. We had Ambassador Anne Patterson there, who tried to build relationships.

And unwittingly, I believe, in trying to build that relationship, she gave the impression to millions of Egyptians that she was sort of sympathetic to the government, that she was dismissive of the street protests and the opposition, and the U.S. really didn't fundamentally care. And so we have a bad visual because we seem to be hostile to the popular forces.

Did it make any difference? I don't think so. I think the only thing we can really do is aid democratic moderate thinkings over the long term. We can only engage at the level of ideas.

SIEGEL: But what about the risk to Egypt that you have a large movement, a large Islamist political movement, which won the presidential election, won the parliamentary elections, won the referendum on the constitution that it drafted, and its lesson is, well, we win, and it's negated. Forget about electoral politics. Let's just try to subvert the state instead. That would be a more fruitful course for us. And we are some considerable chunk of the Egyptian population.

DIONNE: I think that is dangerous. I think that it's in the interest of all who believe in freedom and democracy that Islamist movements moderate themselves and come to accept the disciplines of democracy. And I think the lesson a lot of these movements are going to take is, well, see what happens, we can't count on free elections, even though we won a majority.

So I do think it sends a negative signal and even if it's entirely true that Morsi was clearly engaging in abuses that needed to be fought.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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