How to Make Egypt Safe for Democracy

President Obama has made a hash of the crisis in Cairo so far. Rather than demanding early elections, Washington should eschew overblown rhetoric and help pro-Western parties to thwart Islamism

Hosni Mubarak’s resignation as president of Egypt, after thirty years of authoritarian rule, is a major seismic event in the unstable Middle East. Although not as shattering as the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s departure may actually pose more of a challenge to Egypt’s long-ruling military than either Sadat’s murder or the natural death of Gamal Nasser, the first officer in the modern military line after the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk.  The “regime” thereafter was the military itself; while Mubarak was obviously its apex in recent years, the military establishment as a whole governed, not just one man.  

When Nasser and Sadat died, the collective military leadership knew its next step: have another military leader succeed his fallen predecessor.  That outcome seems very unlikely today, although not impossible.  In the short term, the military’s highest body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is in charge, having dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, pending parliamentary and presidential elections to be scheduled. Whether there is a larger, longer-term political role for Egypt’s military (as in Pakistan and Turkey) remains to be seen.

Mubarak and Obama: Their marriage of convenience abruptly ended in acrimonious divorce

Commentators and historians will debate what actually sparked the demonstrations that brought Mubarak down, but for now the most likely explanation is that they were essentially spontaneous, initiated by the demonstrations in Tunisia against the despised Ben Ali government, fuelled by social networks like Twitter and Facebook and more broadly through the internet and email.  As in many Third World countries, youth unemployment, especially among those with “university” educations, was widespread; opportunities seemed limited; and 6,000 years of bureaucratic government weighed heavily on the people.  

But the critical political motivator was almost certainly opposition to Mubarak’s long-feared effort to have his son Gamal succeed him in yet another well-rigged Egyptian election.  The elder Mubarak, 82 and ailing, was not likely to run again, but the idea of pharaonic succession was more than most Egyptians could tolerate.  Significantly, opposition included Egypt’s armed forces: Gamal had never been part of the military, unlike his father, a former commander of the Air Force. Combined with obviously fixed parliamentary elections last November, Mubarak the Second was simply unacceptable.

The spontaneity of the street turmoil was confirmed by the absence of leaders, either from among the demonstrators, or from Egyptian intellectuals, existing opposition political figures, or media moths like Mohammed el-Baradei, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who rushed back to Egypt from Vienna to speak English to the Western press and unsuccessfully claim leadership of the rising tide of protest.

Although far from certain, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the “Ikhwan”) probably did not instigate the demonstrations, and may well have been caught off guard like so many others.  But the Brotherhood, although legally banned in Egypt for decades and living in a shadow world politically, was nonetheless a major factor in what happened next. It remains well-organised, tightly disciplined, and clear in its Islamicist agenda.  On the first Friday after the demonstrations began, the Ikhwan’s mullahs used the Friday prayers to call its followers into the streets, substantially increasing both the size of the demonstrations and their intensity.  

The Brotherhood had already been active in the scheduled September presidential elections, moving close to a formal endorsement of el-Baradei’s candidacy, a seemingly odd coalition between a collection of medieval, theocratic radicals and, in effect, a European social democrat. Nonetheless, the alliance served both parties, giving the Ikhwan entrée to the Western media and a role in opposition to Mubarak.  Even before the demonstrations began, el-Baradei had announced support for the Hamas autocracy in the Gaza Strip and for ending all sanctions against Hamas:  “Open the borders, end the blockade!” he told Der Spiegel last July. Since Hamas is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Brotherhood, this was a critical point. Ending Egypt’s blockade of its border with Gaza (the little-known and sporadically effective counterpart to Israel’s blockade) would allow free transit between Gaza and Egypt, thereby facilitating the transfer of operatives, weapons and finance from Hamas’s major backer: Iran.

As the days passed in Egypt, the Obama Administration went through a public agony of confused, contradictory, and inconsistent responses.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the public torrent of words by observing that Mubarak’s government was stable, and Vice-President Biden chimed in that it was not a dictatorship.  Within days, however, President Obama himself was telling Mubarak privately and publicly that the “transition” to democracy had to begin “now”, enabling his press avatars to leak furiously that Mubarak must resign immediately. Within less than a week, the White House endorsed Mubarak remaining in office until the end of his term in September, a line replaced just days later by renewed insistence on Mubarak’s immediate departure from office.

This foolish, endless public commentary was an all-too transparent effort to stay on top of the news cycle, and to portray the US President as directing events rather than merely responding to them. As a consequence, Obama’s credibility was undercut everywhere.  By trying to please everyone, he ended up pleasing no one. The truly important communications, entirely off the media’s radar, were between the Pentagon and Egypt’s military, urging restraint while also trying to understand the shifting dynamics on Egypt’s streets and behind closed doors, where the key political negotiations were taking place. Unfortunately, Obama’s public twisting and turnings have obscured the important, beneficial impact of these invisible lines of communication between Washington and Cairo. 

The issue now, of course, is what happens next. The West can justifiably be optimistic about the legitimate aspirations for freedom and true democracy many demonstrators in Egypt and elsewhere expressed. Tunisia, for example, now seems the most likely candidate to make a successful transition from authoritarian rule to truly representative government. But a pragmatic assessment of the situation in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East nonetheless underlines the daunting obstacles in the way of that transformation. Moreover, critical US national security interests, such as the stability of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, Egypt’s 35-year strategic alignment with America following Sadat’s pivot away from the Soviet Union, and the fate of the Arabian Peninsula’s oil-and gas-producing regimes, justifiably weigh in the balance for Washington’s decision-makers, and the West as a whole.

Many others also have strategic interests at risk. Suddenly, one of the foundations of Israel’s security, the Camp David Accords, is potentially imperiled. Pro-Western Arab governments, particularly monarchies from Morocco to the Gulf, see their stability endangered. They watched in dismay the way in which Obama treated Mubarak, loyalty to unappealing allies in trouble not having been a strong suit in Washington for many years. If the White House threw Mubarak “under the bus”, they wondered, what would be their fate if they faced internal turmoil? And concern whether loyalty was a principle that counted in Washington was not confined to the Middle East, but extended globally.

Conceptually, of course America supports democracy for all people; how could we do otherwise? But in international politics, as in life, key moral principles and deeply held philosophical values can conflict. Statesmen necessarily face deeply unappealing choices which academics and commentators in their suburban literary redoubts are spared. Sad to say, it is comforting but utterly unrealistic to believe that pursuing one value to the effective exclusion of the others will nonetheless result in all being reconciled satisfactorily.

Advocating democracy and actually building it are two radically different things. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 Commentary article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which first brought her to the attention of prospective presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, deftly skewered Jimmy Carter’s handling of two earlier regime crises, which may have uneasy parallels with what is transpiring in Egypt. Kirkpatrick’s characteristic honesty made famous the argument that pro-Western authoritarian governments had at least the potential for a gradual transformation to democracy, something no repressive communist government had ever done. But Kirkpatrick’s thesis was more profound than simply a Cold War polemic; she explained eloquently why proclaiming support for democratic ideals in no way guaranteed implementing them successfully. Her case studies were the Shah’s government in Iran and the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, replaced, respectively by ayatollahs in Tehran and Sandinistas in Managua. We thus moved from two authoritarian, pro-US regimes to two even more authoritarian, anti-US regimes, partially thanks to Carter’s bungling.  The lesson was plain.

Kirkpatrick quoted approvingly from John Stuart Mill’s magisterial essay, “Considerations on Representative Government”, in which Mill described three preconditions for such governments to succeed: “One, that the people should be willing to receive it; two, that they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation; three, that they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.” Americans have their own version of this insight, a perhaps apocryphal tale occurring in Philadelphia after the secret, closed-session drafting of the Constitution in 1787. As the story goes, a woman approached Ben Franklin on the street and said, “Well, Doctor, what have you given us, a republic or a monarchy?”  To which Franklin reportedly replied, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Today’s world is filled with failed efforts at democratisation. Russia has passed from totalitarianism, into democracy, and now seems to be passing right out again, regressing to authoritarianism or worse, although seemingly not of the communist variety. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution has been hijacked by Hizbollah, the Shi’ite terrorist group armed and financed by Iran. And in Gaza, Hamas, albeit Sunni, is similarly armed and financed by Iran. In short, the forms and processes of democracy can produce substantively decidedly illiberal results, as Mussolini’s Fascisti and Hitler’s Brown Shirts should have amply warned us in the last century.

Moreover, beyond the issue of Egypt’s future government, broader US national security interests have legitimate — and enormous — claims. Americans may admire Woodrow Wilson’s aspirations to make the world safe for democracy, but they actually follow Theodore Roosevelt’s devastating response: “First and foremost, we are to make the world safe for ourselves.” Attention to US strategic interests is not evidence of indifference to democracy, but a recognition that America’s democracy itself requires its leaders to do what nation states exist to do, and as its Constitution specifically admonishes, to “provide for the common defence”.

Ironically, once Egyptian demonstrators verged on toppling Mubarak, the Obama Administration suddenly found virtue in demonstrations in Iran, with ringing statements by Vice-President Biden and others. By contrast, after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 presidential election, the White House had been silent or even supportive of Ahmadinejad’s election “victory”, so desperate was it to engage Tehran in negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. Obama’s sustained unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone endorse, the protesters in Iran against their totalitarian, theocratic military rulers provoked enormous criticism, which obviously stung the hyper-media-conscious White House. But while being rhetorically ahead of the media spin cycle is a mark of success at the Obama White House, as in so many other cases, rhetoric is all there is.  Mistaking rhetoric for action is the Obama Administration’s hallmark.

So, today’s pressing question for Egypt is what steps the new military rulers should take. First, there should not be a rush to elections. It was a fatal mistake for Palestinians when the Bush Administration, reading supposedly irrefutable polls that Hamas could not win, scheduled elections in 2006 that allowed Hamas to do just that. Democracy is a culture, a way of life, as Mill and Kirkpatrick recognised, not simply the counting of votes. Any realistic assessment of Egypt’s “opposition” shows it to be weak, disorganised, and indifferently led. Moving to early elections, as the Muslim Brotherhood wants, will not bring the Age of Aquarius, but only benefit those factions with existing political infrastructures, which is a formula for domination by the Brotherhood. Far better to proceed when the true democrats are ready, which may not be soon enough for some, but which is unambiguously the more pro-democratic course. 

Second, participation in the elections, whenever scheduled, should be limited to real political parties. From Mussolini to Putin, from Hamas to Hezbollah, terrorists, totalitarians and their ilk masquerading as political parties do not really believe in representative government. Banning such faux-democrats from participating in the legitimate political process until they become true political parties is entirely legitimate, and may well be critical to avert disaster.  America did so for decades by outlawing the Communist Party, as post-World War II Germany did with the National Socialists. Thus, for President Obama to say, as he did, that the transition “must bring all of Egypt’s voices to the table” is not only naive, but fundamentally dangerous.  

In order to join legitimate political parties in contesting elections, we asked in Lebanon and in Palestinian elections that terrorists had to renounce violence (and mean it), give up their weapons, and abjure the prospect of resorting to force if they didn’t like the outcome. Sadly, we did not insist on these standards, and the results in Lebanon and Gaza prove our mistake. We should not repeat these errors, although Obama seems well on the way to doing so.

Third, the West should provide material assistance to those truly committed to a free and open society. In days of yore, the United States supplied extensive clandestine assistance to prevent communist takeovers in post-World War II elections in France, Italy and elsewhere. Undoubtedly, the Obama Administration is too fastidious for such Cold War-style behaviour, but perhaps overt, democratic institution-building assistance is not too much to ask. Advocates of doing nothing will argue that Western assistance, overt or covert, will “taint” the real democrats, and should therefore be avoided. Of course, there are always excuses for doing nothing. At a minimum, we should let Egyptians themselves decide whether they will be “tainted” with outside assistance; if they can live with the taint, so should we.

Fourth, Egypt’s military must restore and extend stability, setting an example throughout the Middle East, thereby allowing whatever progress toward a truly democratic culture to emerge. Egypt’s military will require political space in the months ahead. The Pentagon’s continuing close relationship with Egypt’s military should give us confidence that the right message about civilian control over the military is getting through.  One of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ first announcements was that it would honour Egypt’s international obligations, presumably including Camp David. This is important and reassuring internationally, but hardly dispositive of what future governments will do.  

The 1990s were filled with visions of a “new Middle East” that would transform the “cold peace” Israel had achieved with Egypt and Jordan into broader economic and security ties, and that would extend to other Arab countries too. That vision was stillborn, but there is little doubt that we are now going to see a new Middle East whether we like it or not, and whether or not it will be better than what it replaces. Alea iacta est — “the die has been cast” — and it may be long years before it comes to rest.

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