Monday, March 28, 2005

Democracy on the march in Egypt?

I've been thinking about doing a post on the whole democracy-promotion thing that's the Bush administration's latest slogan.  Well, until the supposed wave of democratic reform in the Middle East starts going south, at which time we'll switch to something else.  Hey, maybe we could make "combating weapons of mass destruction" the lead slogan!

Obviously, this is a huge subject.  And there is no perfect formula that can't be misused or act as the cover for cynical power politics.

Part of the problem with the whole idea, though, is that there has always been a contradiction in America between the country's faith in democracy as an ideal and the need to promote the national interest in a world in which nation-states with different forms of government were major players.

Just think of the American Revolution itself.  Americans were English colonists.  American notions of democracy, for all the varied sources, didn't come out of studying classical texts about ancient Athens.  It came from the experience of representative government in the colonies and a sense that British citizens in the colonies should enjoy the same kind of representation that British citizens in the homeland enjoyed.

So a democratic revolution based on British ideas of government allied itself with monarchical France to make war against Britain, which had a restricted but real parliamentary government.  Overwhelmingly Protestant America allied with Catholic France against Protestant Britain.  Shared values are important, and some of the French supporters of the American Revolution (like Lafayette) were also sympathetic to American democratic values.

But interests are also important.  And during the Revolutionary War, the fact that monarchical France had antagonistic interests to Britain meant that the success of democratic revolution and national independence in America meant allying with an unquestionably reactionary power and not worrying too much about the fact that France didn't share our political values much beyond "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  Supporting democracy and independence in American at that time meant supporting alliance with a France who didn't support or practice democracy.

And, of course, there was the genuine problem that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence were being championed by a country that practiced chattel slavery.  In the decades that followed, the democrats of the world found their enthusiasm for the American system limited by the growth and incresing belligerency associated with that "peculiar institution."

Ther eare plenty of other instances in American history and in current policy.  And sometimes the difference between balancing contradictory priorities and crass hypocrisy is a very thin one.

Here are a couple of articles relating to the problems of one of the alleged sites of the democratic movement that Bush's war of liberation (and to destroy nonexistent WMDs) in Iraq suposedly inspired.

Egypt reins in democratic voices by Dan Murphy Christian Science Monitor 03/28/05 discusses recent moves by Hosni Mubarak's government to suppress renewed political activity by the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Brothers over the last several decades have been one of the main sources of the Islamic fundamentalist movement.  Militant Muslim Brothers like Sayyid Qutb have provided ideas and inspiration for the present-day jihadist movement.

Yet it is also one of the most popular political organizations in Egypt.  And even assuming that the United States doesn't intend to directly intervene in Egyptian politics, US policymakers should be considering whether we can live with an Islamicist government in Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Would taking power make them more militant and autocratic?  Would they give active support to anti-American terrorists?  Or would they take a more pragmatic approach?

The status quo has its own risks.  The Egyptian government has encouraged an increased Islamization of society in the last three decades or so.  But they also suppress the Muslim fundamentalist movement, as exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.  If America is seen as a supporter of that suppression, what does that do to our exposure to further terrorist attacks?  How does it affect our relations with other Islamic governments?  Do Shia governments like Iran's or the one that we're in the process of installing in Iraq look favorably on the US backing the suppression of Sunni fundamentalists like the Brothers?  What about the 90% of the Muslim world that's Sunni?

John Dean recently looked at the political situation in Egypt with its alleged move toward more democracy in light of its implications for US policy: Will Changing the Egyptian Constitution's Election System Really Foster Democracy?: Why Egypt-Watchers Don't Think So by John Dean, 03/25/05.

Dean defines the pragmatic problem with Bush's announced policy of pushing for democratization in the Middle East:

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush declared that the central purpose of his second term would be to promote democracy and end tyranny everywhere. It was pure neoconservatism. As Dimitri Simes -- who is not a neo-con, but rather heads the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank -- said, "If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House."

Since then, Bush has continued his call for democracy - especially in the Middle East. This radical policy of the United States telling other countries how to govern themselves has been created out of the ashes of his Iraq policy. Indeed, it is based on the same sort of poor intelligence and weak analysis that produced phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a fantasy connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Bush has merely substituted his unsupported (and unsupportable) claim that Middle Eastern democracy will end the threat of terror for his baseless rationale for expending blood and treasure in Iraq. While Bush can impose democracy on Iraq as an occupying power, gunpoint democracy is not exactly contagious. And we don't have enough guns to end tyranny everywhere.

As far as the neoconservative vision and the notion of imposing democracy by military force, I think Dean is right in his general observation.  But there are ways that the United States can promote human rights and democracy - and has done so in the past - without relying on wars of liberation and the threat of them.  Even without a "Wilsonian" perspective, there are good practical reasons for paying attention to issues of how other countries are governed.

But Dean explains in the case of Egypt why the cosmetic reforms that Mubarak has announced and that Bush and his fans are holding up as part of the success story of the Bush Doctrine are less than the White House is making them out to be.  In particular, the promise to open up this year's presidential election is little more than window-dressing designed to make Mubarak's continuation in power look superficially more legitimate.  The nature of the requirements to qualify as a presidential candidate mean, in practice, "means Mubarak can control the outcome of the election," writes Dean.

He concludes his article as follows:

"We are happy to take American money to provide Israel with a buffer state in this Arab world," I was told by one politically sophisticated Egyptian. "We are a good investment for the United States to protect its interest in Israel," he added. "But if George Bush thinks he can force democracy on Egypt, and the Middle East, he's dumber than I thought he was, and unlike many of my countrymen, I never thought he was dumb."

An American expatriate, who has lived in Cairo for several decades, told me, "Bush's effort to take credit for the democratic thinking emerging in the Middle East is actually counterproductive. Arabs so dislike the man, they find him so hypocritical, so offensive and arrogant, that he is more likely to cause the Middle East, including Egypt, to do exactly the opposite of what he claims he wants."

In summary, I found little, if any reason, to believe there is much prospect for Democracy in Egypt at this time. Testifying to this fact is that I feel compelled to protect the identity of my many sources, the people who were willing to openly discuss this matter with me. The reason is that I fear for their well-being; they live in a country where speaking your mind can get you in deep trouble. And without open debate, what kind of democracy can emerge?

Democracy may be on the march.  But what's happening in the Middle East right now is not looking at the moment to be a new version of eastern Europe, 1989-90.

See also:

The Beirut Wall Isn't Falling by Fred Kaplan Slate 03/10/05
Playing the Democracy Card by Dilip Hiro (introduction by Tom Engelhardt) 03/17/05
Afghanistan: Media Black Hole by Sonali Kolhatkar, 03/26/05

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