Friday, February 18, 2011

Inconvenient Democracy.

I wrote this column for Zahraničná politika on the eve of the fall of Mubarak's regime, so some of it is already out of date.  However, other parts of it continue to be valid in light of the once-again focused or conflicted reaction of the US administration to unrest in other countries...  

Inconvenient Democracy

Any reasonable person would expect that a people rising up to take down a dictator would be greeted with universal cheers.  Democracy is ultimately the best form of government, after all, or so we have been taught since our time in the crib.  And yet the reaction to the revolution in Egypt has been anything but a cheer.  Instead what we have seen thus far is at best a lot of concern and at worst completely naked cynicism.  It serves to remind us just how hollow the American belief in democracy has become long before anyone in Egypt ever thought about protesting in the streets.

 While it remains unclear whether the revolution in Egypt will be successful in overturning Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it is perfectly obvious just how conflicted the US feels about this development.  First, Obama didn’t think it necessary even so much as mention the protests in Egypt or the revolution in Tunisia during his state of the union speech on January 25th.  Then, a few days later, his vice president went on TV to say that Mubarak should not step down and refused to call him a dictator.  It wasn’t until more recently that the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton communicated a message more sympathetic with the protestors; yet, the emphasis was on calling for an “orderly transition”.

 However appalling, the hesitant behaviour of the US officials makes sense.  A quick look at the list of recipient of US foreign aid reveals that Egypt is the second largest recipient (after Israel and also not counting spending in Iraq and Afghanistan).  Egypt - and Mubarak’s regime - received on average about $2 billion per year since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.  Clearly they are a key US ally; though the partnership doesn’t seem to extend too far beyond our military interests:  it’s kind of telling that the vast majority of that aid is specifically for military assistance which Egypt uses to purchase products from US defense contractors.  Humanitarian effort this is clearly not.

And yet, I can’t help but point out the irony of President Obama on the one hand encouraging Egyptians “to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed” in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, and on the other hand failing to convey a more supportive tone once Egyptians attempted to do just that.  After the first few days of demonstrations, there were reports from Egypt of people dismayed at the tepid response from the US: apparently they didn’t realize that a speech by President Obama, as uplifting as it may be, is just that - a speech.  

Egyptians are, in a sense, getting to know the real Obama, the one that disillusioned liberals in the US have long lost any hope in:  a president, who ran on openness and once in power chose to invoke the state secrecy privilege to squash any attempts at prosecution of the Bush torture regime and instead decided to focus energy on finding creative ways to criminalize those who leak and publish classified information.  

The extent to which the American mainstream is supportive of this kind of cynicism is apparent in the way the public has embraced the “concerns” about Egypt.  According to a poll conducted by Rasmussen, 59% of Americans say if the unrest in Egypt spreads to other countries, it will be bad for the United States and only 5% people think that the current government falling would be good for America.  Most starkly, 70% of people think America should leave the situation alone.  One has to wonder where were these concerns hiding on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq, when close to ⅔ of Americans supported the war, according to a March 2003 ABC poll.  

Given the history of the middle east, these concerns are not entirely unwarranted, of course.  There is plenty of precedent for an autocrat stepping only to be replaced by an even worse alternative, think Iran, the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini.  And there are plenty of examples where democracy has led to undesirable outcomes, such as the election of Hamas in Gaza.  Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, is the saying that has become popular to describe the situation.  

And yet I fail to see the upside in supporting status quo in Egypt.  How can the US ever be taken seriously again if the grand summary of its foreign policy in the middle east over the last 10 years ends up being “democracy, only when we want it”?  As I see it, the administration has missed the chance to be on the right side of history when history was being made:  recognize that a regime change is inevitable sooner or later, and by endorsing it fully, hope for a continuing cooperation from Egypt in the future.  The question is whether the haphazard and belated support - one that the US is likely to offer eventually - will be enough.