The Egyptian opposition’s willingness to permit a referendum on the country’s constitution is a welcome and important course correction. The constitution is flawed, and President Mohamed Morsi’s tone-deaf decree placing him above judicial oversight — since repealed — was an enormous overreach.
But the referendum scheduled for Saturday is a sign that Egyptians of varying views are finally playing politics, not just planning protests. Washington should embrace this in its newfound role of providing guidance without interfering. In other words, it should be coach, not captain.
Actions to date have left much to criticize. The Morsi government was impervious to the appearance of going it alone after 30 percent of the constitutional assembly delegates bolted and called the process unfair. The language in the draft constitution addresses women and minorities, but ambiguous phrasing leaves room for a massive rollback of their rights.
The Egyptian opposition handled the situation no better. Many originally thought that blowing up the drafting process would achieve something. Until very recently, boycotts and protests were the only tools in their toolboxes.
When I was in Egypt last month, some members of the opposition openly admitted that they don’t like politics. Others seemed to believe that the Morsi government would fall and that, magically, a secular government would be installed in its place.
But Morsi won a fair election this summer. Replacing him via some sort of soft coup would be a slap in the face to every Egyptian who fought so hard two years ago for their voices to be heard.
Just as Egyptians are seriously considering the way forward, so must Washington. Now that the opposition is in the game — and not just rallying people in Tahrir Square — the focus should be on the long term.
Both Islamists and secular liberals need to learn that compromise is not a dirty word. In fact, the sign of a good deal is one in which both sides are left a bit unhappy.
The ongoing political challenges on Capitol Hill are a reminder that democracy is messy. But in the United States, we have a 240-year-old resilient democracy, which will surely survive the current circus over the debt situation.
In Egypt, however, the enormous promise of February 2011 could disappear if the opposition returns to the sidelines.
Egyptians on both sides need to stay in the political game. Should the new constitution be ratified, elections for parliament will be held in 60 days. This is a mulligan for the opposition: a second shot at winning seats it lost a year ago.
Egyptians have arrived at the hard part — learning political skills. That means organizing, forming coherent parties with a clear message, recruiting strong candidates, contacting voters and getting out the vote. It was, of course, impossible to do these things and hone such skills under the Mubarak regime, but times have changed, and there are no excuses going forward.
There is a workable path forward, if Egypt can adopt an imperfect but tolerable constitution, elect a representative parliament, establish laws that reflect a modern society and promote economic stability.
But both sides need to want this. Unless and until that happens, the “winner take all” ghosts of the former regime will never be exorcised.