Bumpy road to democracy

A US administration that has so far been sending out confusing signals, and an Egypt lacking a democratic tradition do not bode well for the future.

Mubarak crossed out 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mubarak crossed out 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have in many ways vindicated the “regime change” school of thought that stood behind the 2003 Iraq invasion.
The unrest in both countries, and the potential for a domino effect in Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere in the region, provide ample proof that a “stable” authoritarian regime is a misnomer. Dictatorships are fundamentally shaky political constructs because they lack the requisite self-criticism needed to learn from mistakes and because they can never stifle the innate human desire for freedom.
Unfortunately this insight, applied to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s maniacal regime, did not guide the foreign policies of successive US governments in their relations with Egypt. The US has consistently refrained from making its generous annual aid package conditional upon the gradual but steady building of institutions such as a free press, a fair judiciary and a legislature with an opposition that stands a chance of coming to power – all essential for a viable liberal democracy. Unsurprisingly, the US is now the focus of Egyptian opposition groups’ ire for helping to prop up a corrupt and illegitimate regime for so long.
To be fair, US administrations were well aware of the dissonance between their financial support for Cairo, second only to their aid to Israel, and the sad realities of Egyptian autocracy, which contrasted so sharply with the Mideast’s only democracy.
As former Soviet dissident and present Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky notes in an indepth interview with Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz that appears in today’s paper, US administrations paid lip service to the need for democracy, but were never willing to push their Egyptian ally too hard for fear of empowering the Islamist opposition. Yet, as Sharansky notes, it was precisely this near-unconditional US support enjoyed by Mubarak that enabled him to gut liberal opposition. This left the Muslim Brotherhood as the only alternative to the hopelessness of repressive autocracy. “The free world has been helping to destroy any democratic alternative [in Egypt],” Sharansky declares.
Nevertheless, it is not too late, argues Sharansky. “It is good that this is all happening now in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood is not strong enough.”
YET THE Obama administration seems not to have learned the lesson. Instead of taking a principled position from the outset and supporting any leadership that commits itself to democratic reforms, the US has been sending out confusing and almost contradictory messages. Just last week, the White House urged Mubarak to heed anti-government protesters, make concessions and immediately begin the transition to new leadership. Over last weekend, meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explicitly endorsed Omar Suleiman, a close ally of Mubarak. Then, on Monday, the White House labeled the steps Mubarak had taken to date “monumental changes.”
The Obama administration has also shown a willingness to engage with “non-secular” parties, which apparently includes the Muslim Brotherhood, while it has said precious little about the need to implement widespread reforms ensuring basic individual freedoms, a more pluralistic education system, an open economy, and numerous other institutional changes that are a prerequisite for true democracy.
Egypt’s challenges are formidable. And while we agree with Sharansky that the building of institutions is essential for ensuring that the country’s first democratic election not prove to be its last, we are less than optimistic about the prospects of a smooth transition.
As philosopher Francis Fukuyama has noted, “democracy does not magically spring to life once the dictator is gone, or even after the first free and fair election has taken place.”
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgystan, as well as the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, are all proof of this. A myriad of factors – cultural, religious, sociological and economic – come into play during the endeavor of state-building. A US administration that has so far been sending out confusing signals, and an Egypt lacking a democratic tradition, with the military and the Muslim Brotherhood as its two best-organized forces, do not bode well for the future. Egypt will, undoubtedly, serve as another example, along with Iraq, of the relative ease with which a corrupt, repressive regime can be toppled... and the infinite difficulty with which a freer, more open, more democratic state can be built in its stead.