If you believe Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, Egypt's president, his country will take a final step toward democracy later this month, when voters start the process of choosing a new parliament.
The previous one, freely elected and dominated by Islamists, was dissolved by the supreme court in 2012. The intervening period has seen El-Sissi, then a general, oust an elected president, win an election and crush his opponents with violence and draconian laws passed by decree.
Yet the forces behind Egypt's revolution in 2011 — when the previous strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in a popular revolt — have shown scant ability and often little inclination to keep the country on a more democratic path.
Most of Egypt's so-called liberals supported the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, the former president, in 2013 on the grounds that his Muslim Brotherhood was undermining democracy. Many then stayed mum as El-Sissi's troops slaughtered protesting Islamists. Tarnished by this history, riven by infighting and lacking broad appeal, the liberals now appear helpless to check Egypt's slide back to authoritarianism.
A common lament of liberals is that, having preserved democracy with his coup, El-Sissi then stifled their voices. Indeed, liberal activists and politicians have been hounded by the security services, pilloried in the media and constrained by government restrictions on protests.
The regime often justifies the oppression on security grounds, while making the occasional cosmetic gesture, such as releasing 100 political prisoners last month. Thousands more languish in jail.
Most political inmates are members of the Brotherhood, which El-Sissi banned. But that has not helped the liberals, who are expected to do poorly in the election, in part owing to the law governing the vote.
Three-quarters of the seats will be elected in single-member constituencies, which favor wealthy and well-connected candidates — often regime loyalists who buy votes. Another 20 percent will come from party lists, which is how most of the previous parliament was chosen. El-Sissi himself will select 5 percent of the members. A rubber-stamp chamber, similar to those under Mubarak, is the expected outcome.
But even under the more favorable rules of the previous parliamentary elections in 2011-12, secular prodemocracy parties won less than one-third of the vote. Young and inexperienced, they were clobbered by the Brotherhood, which had a long history of providing services and mobilizing voters. "This is a country that didn't have real political parties for 60 years, so we're still learning how to build them," said Khaled Dawoud of the liberal Constitution Party.
While good at opposition, Egypt's liberals have failed to unite behind a platform or leader. In the election that brought Morsi to power, they split their vote between a clutch of candidates of varying political stripes, none of whom made it to the second round of voting.
Individual liberal parties are having enough trouble holding themselves together. Several are riven by internal quarrels. In August Hala Shukrallah, then head of the Constitution Party, resigned, citing a "vicious circle of differences and complexities."
"The liberals have been bedeviled by their own egos," said David Ottaway of the Wilson Center, an American think tank.
The parties have something else in common: financial trouble. While some businessmen swung their wealth behind the new parties after the revolution, they have lately kept their distance for fear of angering the regime.
But money alone does not explain why the liberal message has failed to resonate. Many of the liberal elite, who tend to be urban and educated, speak a different language, in terms of politics and economics.
Liberal appeals for democracy now feel stale, as most Egyptians seem comfortable with El-Sissi, who has brought a sense of stability after years of upheaval. Having quashed dissent, he is now being urged by supporters to amend the constitution to reduce the powers of parliament. The liberals are in no position to stop him.
Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.