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Sustainable Democracy In North Africa, Mideast

Egyptian journalists tape their mouths and raise their pens during a demonstration against the draft constitution in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012.

In order to be durable and meaningful, democracy must consist of more than elections.

There have been democratic breakthroughs in North Africa and the Middle East in recent years, but in too many places, the hopes of those early days, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, have run up against difficult realities: atrocities in Syria, unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, and terrorism in Benghazi.

Sustainable Democracy In North Africa, Mideast
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In order to be durable and meaningful, democracy must consist of more than elections. It must include institutions that safeguard fundamental rights and freedoms. Otherwise, transitions risk relapsing into authoritarianism or falling into chaos.

This is a region where divisions of ideology, geography, faith, gender, and ethnicity run deep. And this a moment that demands compromise more than confrontation and dialogue more than dictation.

This is particularly true in Egypt, said Deputy Secretary Burns: "As the lack of Egyptian consensus regarding the constitution continues, the United States stands firm in [its] support for the Egyptian people as they seek a path forward consistent with these principles. We reiterate our call for meaningful consultations without preconditions between the government and the opposition to agree on the way forward. . . .As Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, President Morsi has a particular responsibility to work to build greater consensus on such important issues as the constitution."

Tunisia’s revolution faces similar challenges. Leaders have tough choices to make to reach consensus, complete a constitution that enshrines Tunisians’ rights, and pave the path for a permanent government next year. But America still believes Tunisia can and must be a model for the rest of the region.

The United States holds parties of every political stripe to the same standards: All must respect the rules and safeguards of democracy based on universal principles of human rights. They must reject violence, terrorism, and extremism; abide by the rule of law; honor international agreements; and protect the rights and dignity of all. The United States will work with elected leaders and assess all parties based on their actions and these standards.

When it comes to building sustainable democracies, the most consequential distinction is not between Islamists and secularists, but between those who embrace a rights-respecting pluralistic approach and those who seek to impose their own vision on others.