The death toll in Egypt’s summer of anger makes you wonder how dumping Hosni Mubarak two years ago could possibly have been worth such a cost.

International surveys repeatedly show that in times of crisis and disruption most people choose peace and security over justice.

Egyptians turfed out Mubarak in a quest for justice. In the process, they lost security. What went wrong? And what now?

Getting rid of a dictator is relatively easy compared to the work of constructing democracy from the ground up.

Democracy is not a short-term process that can be downloaded from outside. It has to rely on behaviour that is built up over time, and where the building blocks are civil society and its habits of give and take. 

Egyptians, under successive dictators, had no opportunity to build these vital capacities, and the result of that is what we have been witnessing these past weeks.

The sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a courageous human rights advocate who was once jailed for speaking out against Mubarak. Looking now at the way in which the revolution he sought has turned into a battle between his fellow countrymen, he asks for patience. "You gave Mubarak 30 years. Give us some time."

Ibrahim had long criticized the U.S. for coddling Mubarak, part of a frequent tendency of the West to prefer the apparent stability of a useful dictator over basic democratic values.

And now the U.S., whose influence in Egypt is at its lowest ebb ever, is struggling to decide exactly where to throw its considerable support.

Three power bases

Today, power in Egypt has been dispersed to a triad of distinct bases.

One is the faith-based Islamist parties of which the Muslim Brotherhood — long banned from politics in the Mubarak era, but always present as a social service provider — was elected to office in 2012 only to be deposed by protest and the army.

Another grouping comprises the many elements of the "secularist" and democratic opposition that was the spearhead in toppling Mubarak. It is probably equal in aggregate support to the Brotherhood, but has none of its unity of organization and common purpose.

Then there is the army. It presents itself as the guarantor of the nation’s integrity with its self-appointed role as broker between these other two groups. But it also has vast economic interests of its own that it wants to safeguard.

Supporting cast members here include the very tough internal security agencies that are anti-Brotherhood, and the courts, which are largely Mubarak-appointed and which, with ardent support from the network of old-regime business cronies, try to protect the remnants of the former status quo.

Beyond them all are tens of millions of Egyptian poor along with the country’s frustrated urban professionals chafing at the economic disarray.

The missing ingredients

In reviewing the experience of countries that attempted and (in most cases) succeeded in making the transition from authoritarian societies to democracy in the wave that began with Portugal and Spain in the 1970s and swept through Eastern Europe (after the Communist collapse in 1989), Latin America, and many countries in Africa and Asia, many scholars, including those in the seven-year project I direct under the Community of Democracies, point to the necessity of what’s called "pacting" among the contestants for power.

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U.S. President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha's Vineyard on Thursday to 'deplore' the Egyptian authorities crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. As he spoke Egypt's interior ministry said it had authorized security forces to use live ammunition against protestors attacking churches or government buildings. (Reuters)

Normally, the incoming revolutionary order seldom wins a clean sweep, and there needs to be some kind of tacit agreement with the old order not to turn everything completely upside down.

Without such agreement, a country will stagger forward and backward in unresolved, polarized conflict where "democracy and dictatorship live side-by-side," as St. Petersburg’s Mayor Anatoly Sobchak said about Russia’s problems in the 1990s (which have only become aggravated).

All societies are pluralist. But institutions must be inclusive. That is the most important rule of democracy.

One of the West’s early misplaced emphasis was the belief that generally free and fair elections was what democracy was all about.

In reality, it is what happens after the elections that most determines democratic success or failure. Will winners, who may be an ethnic, tribal, or sectarian majority, include electoral minorities wholeheartedly? Or will they judge them only as political adversaries?

In Egypt’s case, once the Muslim Brotherhood won power, it didn’t seem to have a clue about the need for truly "pacting" with any of the opposition groups, which is why the army toppled them from power.

But it now is making precisely the same mistake.

Missed the signs

For decades, the U.S. and most other Western countries got Egypt (and Tunisia, and Libya, etc.,) hopelessly wrong by allowing our desire for allies in the "war on terror" and for the Mideast peace process to override the need to understand what repressed people in those countries wanted for themselves.

Our understanding today falsely aligned our Egyptian hopes with that country’s so-called secularists because our own political system is undeniably secular.

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Relatives of dead Muslim Brotherhood supporters console each othter at El Eyman mosque in Cairo on Thursday. At least 525 people were killed in the security crackdown. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

In so doing, we failed to see that virtually all Egyptians possess deep religious faith, their differences being over the degree of pluralism guaranteed by Egypt’s laws and political process.

After Mohammed Morsi was elected president a year ago, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo worked hard to persuade the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress to accept the new regime, while trying to influence the Morsi government to be more tolerant and inclusive. At the same time, these diplomats tried to maintain the neutrality of the Egyptian army, in part by the promise of massive U.S. military aid.

But that delicate balance collapsed. Morsi had no experience with the essential compromises of political life, and couldn’t seem to see that being Egypt’s first-ever democratic winner did not entitle him to call all the shots.

Today, democrats look on aghast as democracy’s laboratory in the Middle East is exploding with an experiment gone fatally awry.

Not only will Egypt now need a generation to heal the wounds it has inflicted on itself, even if it should come to some temporary accommodation, but young Islamists everywhere, having seen democracy denied, will be its enemies from here on.

For them, we, the outside democracies, come across as callow and shallow, flippant with our sound-bite formulas like "the army’s intervention is the least bad solution."

We blew it by looking on bewildered and sort of bothered when we should have been supporting that initial democracy through a massive plan of economic reconstruction, conditional of course on inclusive governance to see it through.

Is it too late now? The paradox is that while it’s up to Egyptians to succeed or not, the only person in the world who could possibly cajole the competing factions into engaging with each is Obama, who is himself politically burdened by polarization at home.

No one else has the standing to come near. Without a decisive personal intervention from Washington — not to "Americanize" the outcome, but to support reconciliation and inclusivity — democracy will have taken a grievous blow.

Its failure for a great and deserving people will be a cautionary tale for many others for years to come.