Eurasiacritic, July 2009
In the aftermath of President Obama's historic speech delivered from Cairo last month, many are still left wondering what, practically speaking, the fate of democracy promotion under the current administration will be. Until the speech, with few exceptions, little more than silence had come publicly from the Obama administration on the issue of democracy promotion in the Middle East, and in Egypt specifically, leading many to believe that the failures of the Bush administration in this regard had definitively closed that door for a while. In fact, what few early signs came from the administration indicated a conspicuous attempt to undo Bush's efforts in this regard, and to re-establish strong diplomatic ties with U.S. "allies" in the region around the 3 D's: development, defense, and diplomacy. This new policy of "pragmatism" was underscored when Obama contacted President Mubarak on the first day of his presidency to consult on the Arab Israeli conflict, as well as Secretary of State Clinton's remarks during a March visit to Egypt mentioning her friendship with the Mubaraks and downplaying the country's serious human rights violations. Despite this seeming retreat, some activists continued to hope, counting on President Obama's personal experience as a community organizer and his commitment to human rights and dignity repeatedly asserted throughout his campaign.
Obama's Cairo speech is widely perceived as a ‘home run', addressing past slights to the Muslim community and taking on with humility but resolve every major issue that has caused a nose-dive in the level of respect towards the U.S. and its popularity in recent years. But the sections of the speech on democracy were riddled with ambiguity and ambivalence. Even so, Obama's statement that all people should have the right to choose their own leaders was met with riotous cheers and applause from the audience composed of mainly young people in Cairo, most of whom were born long after Hosni Mubarak took over power.
The history of U.S. support for democratic reform in Egypt precedes the Bush administration. Under Bush's freedom agenda, however, U.S. aid to democracy activists and good governance programs increased significantly. By 2004, the U.S. gave Egypt $37 million annually, and this funding peaked in 2008 at $54.8 million. However, between 2004 and 2009, democracy assistance still amounted to less than $250 million, compared to a steady provision of military assistance at approximately $1.3 billion annually.
Between 2003 and 2005, the Bush administration heightened its emphasis on political reform, and coupled democracy assistance with pro-democracy diplomacy, tying U.S. concessions, including a free trade agreement, to progress on key democratic reforms and freedoms. This emphasis was crystallized in then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's speech at the American University in Cairo in 2005 in which she declared the U.S. intention to "support the democratic aspirations of all people" in lieu of the old policy of supporting "stability at the expense of democracy" only to fail on both fronts. External U.S. pressure on Egypt between 2003 and 2005 catalyzed the "Arab Spring," and led to a brief opening up of political space and resulted in unprecedented citizen engagement, the proliferation of independent newspapers, a flood of new bloggers and other encouraging signs of a robust emerging polity.
But with the situation in Iraq deteriorating and substantive gains won by Islamist forces in Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections and subsequently in Palestine, the United States decided that democratic reform was too risky a proposition, abandoning Arab democrats once more to autocratic regimes in the name of a myopic commitment to "stability." The Egyptian regime quickly capitalized on the shelving of Bush's freedom agenda by amplifying domestic repression. In the aftermath of the U.S. retreat on the freedom agenda, diplomatic ties between the two countries remained cold-Mubarak did not make plans to visit the U.S. as he had previously done annually until Bush was out of office. Despite this marked cooling of relations, Egyptian cooperation on U.S. strategic interests, including on Iraq, did not stop, Egypt even becoming the first Arab country to send an ambassador to Iraq.
Despite the relative quiet regarding democracy assistance, the Obama administration has mostly continued the Bush-era programs. In its 2010 budget request, the administration asked for $545 million for democracy and governance programs across the Middle East, reflecting a 10 percent increase over FY ‘09. That request also included a significant jump for some of Bush's key aid programs, including the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
But Egypt is the exception to the broader trend of increasing democracy assistance funding for the Middle East. During the congressional appropriations process in March, U.S. democracy and governance funding for Egypt was cut by an unprecedented 60 percent-a cut that was echoed in the president's most recent budget request for 2010.
Some analysts believe that the Obama administration is headed toward eliminating democracy assistance to Egypt in favor of efforts to aid development. A few prominent Middle East scholars have come out publicly in favor of this trend, arguing that democracy assistance to Egypt has failed, and that U.S. aid should be funneled solely into economic development efforts. The argument is that the exclusive focus on development would lead to concrete advancements in social, economic, and educational spheres, creating an informed and engaged citizenry that could more effectively drive democratic reform. While the author of this analysis concedes that many of the democracy support programs under Bush were naïve and poorly designed, nonetheless that is a weak argument for abandoning them completely. On the contrary, the failures in advancing democratic reforms under the Bush administration warrant greater engagement now on political reform in Egypt, a remarkably influential country in the region. This involves a critical examination of the paradigms and experience of the past to fuel creative thinking on the future in order to achieve tangible results.
Egypt is the trendsetting heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds, with a population of 80 million people. As home to the largest Christian population of the Middle East, Jews, Baha'is, and Shi'ites, Egypt was until the early to mid 20th century a symbol of vibrant pluralism-albeit an imperfect one.
But Egypt, which also houses one of Islam's most sacrosanct institutions, has now become a breeding ground for religious intolerance. Egyptian society, fueled by a government complicit in increased sectarianism, is becoming one with a worldview that is increasingly centered on religion. Under the Mubarak regime, sectarianism has witnessed unprecedented growth, culminating in acts of violence against religious minorities and marked by government unwillingness to substantively address inequalities or extend the equal protection of the law to all religious minorities.
For the past 28 years, since the assassination of President Sadat, Egypt has been ruled by emergency laws which suspend the basic rights of the people. In terms of regressive laws that restrict civil society and consolidate authoritarian rule, Egypt's reach has extended beyond its borders to become the regional inspiration. Torture, arbitrary detentions, and unwarranted military tribunals of civilians all combine to fuel extremist sentiment and popular sympathy for it.
Meanwhile, the Mubarak regime derives its international legitimacy from a false political dualism that offers the international community only two choices for Egyptian governance: the current regime, or Islamic extremists. In reality, more than 77 percent of Egyptians refused to vote in the last parliamentary election because they were not offered a middle way. The regime has destroyed all secular, liberal political parties that might present a stronger appeal to the population. At the same time, U.S.-backed autocrats like Mubarak continue to successfully drive and feed the ideology of extremists not just in Egypt, but across the region. Rhetoric decrying Arab autocrats' mistreatment of their people-with Mubarak at the forefront-is a permanent feature in the speeches of figures like Osama Bin Laden to Hassan Nasrallah, because they know it resonates powerfully with the peoples of the region.
Internationally, Egypt has become very active in a growing network of alliances between dictators, acting to substantively block efforts to ensure international human rights enforcement at entitles like the United Nations (UN). Recently, Egypt rejected the Democracy Coalition Project's application to gain consultative status at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, along with eight other nations infamous for their poor human rights records, including China, Cuba, Sudan, Russia, and Qatar.
There is no official plan for presidential succession in Egypt. This fact, combined with serious economic instability due to the global economic recession, minimal state legitimacy, and rising social discontent due to chronic mismanagement on virtually all fronts, refutes the argument that the Mubarak regime is the only stable option, particularly as the popularity of Mubarak's heir apparent, his son Gamal, is anything but apparent, not only with the people but also with the military. As long as the West remains silent on the Egyptian government's intransigent refusal to permit the emergence and viability of a moderate and credible opposition in Egypt, the continued reliance on the 81 year old Mubarak's "stability" may prove an increasingly risky proposition.
If the West, wants-as many Egyptians do-a credible alternative to the religiously inspired political movements in Egypt, a true commitment to decreasing sectarian tensions, and a stable partner in promoting regional interests and peace, it must support democratic forces in their efforts to organize and carve out an inclusive and participatory political space.
Not only is support for the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people in the strategic interest of the community of democracies, but backtracking now and returning to an aid and foreign policy that prioritizes only economic development at the expense of democracy promotion simply rewards the regime for its brutal crackdown against secular democracy activists. While the U.S-Egyptian alliance is important and often mutually beneficial, Mubarak has been able to deliver very little in terms of substantive advancement on regional peace with Israel, not to mention the failure to deliver on internal development, as Egypt has witnessed regression on numerous development indicators under Mubarak's 28 year tenure. While Mubarak is perceived abroad as playing a key role in regional stability, the corruption of his regime and its continued repression of the Egyptian people are undermining that very stability and security. Obama's administration should not fall victim to the false claims and propaganda of illegitimate authoritarian dictatorships-and to the sense of needing Mubarak at all costs. This would hamper progress on vital regional U.S. interests and damage American credibility, which already suffered a serious blow during the past eight years. There is no reason why pursuing strategic interests should come at the expense of sound and effective democracy promotion policies; in fact, seeking both simultaneously will strengthen each other.
How to Move Forward
As critical as development assistance is, the truth is that foreign aid has been buying Egyptians bread for decades while an autocratic and corrupt regime has continued to squander economic aid without allowing for the genuine flowering of an open society, fertile to homegrown economic development, foreign investment and democratic citizen engagement. Meanwhile, effective support for political reform from 2004-2005 did have concrete effects that resulted in the formation of precisely the robust constituency that would successfully drive positive reform if sustained.
While change can and is and will continue to come from within, giving up on democracy promotion programs and policy in favor of "technical assistance" would simply consolidate the extremely unpopular status quo of the last twenty eight years. As Egyptians continue to fight and sacrifice for their basic freedoms, the U.S. and the community of democracies cannot remain neutral on these issues; such neutrality amounts to a de facto endorsement of the status quo. It was not the failure of U.S.-funded governance programs or U.S. support for democracy that led to the demise of the "Arab Spring" and the ensuing government backlash. In reality, it was the lack of U.S. consistency in its policies once it got cold feet in the aftermath of Islamist victories in Egypt and Palestine, as well as trouble in Iraq. The early success, and ultimate failure, of U.S. pressures on Egypt in 2005 has proven one very important fact: strong verbal support for political reform and for the efforts of activists, coupled with consistent (non-military) action, is an effective tool for democracy promotion. It should also be noted that at no point during this brief opening was the Egyptian regime itself threatened, nor did Egyptian cooperation on vital U.S. regional interests stop.
In order to avoid charges of intervention, the U.S. and the West should not take the side of particular political actors, but instead support reforms that enjoy wide support among the population, including those that Mubarak himself pledged to undertake in his last presidential campaign. These include repealing emergency law (or any similar "anti-terrorism" legislation that maintains or strengthens existing restrictions), upholding the rule of law and an independent judiciary, lifting the restrictions on political parties and civil society, supporting a free media, and increasing government accountability. While programs that aid impoverished farmers are essential and should continue, no less critical are governance programs aimed at promoting basic rights and a peaceful transition to democracy in this pivotal country of 80 million. Democracy versus development assistance should not be viewed as a zero sum game.
Ways of moving forward include helping to affect a more genuine political process which entails a leveling of the playing field to eliminate the current dichotomy of autocrats versus theocrats, and encourage a more accurate representation of the Egyptian political landscape. This will require applying pressure to eliminate laws and practices that restrict the registration and operation of civil society organizations and political parties, as well as supporting the government to take measures that permit inclusion of the plethora of political forces in the political process. This may include Islamist forces, provided that they are committed to the democratic process beyond mere rhetoric, demonstrate respect for the rule of law, human rights and equality of all citizens before the law. The process of expanding Egypt's political space should ultimately contribute to the participation of diverse candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2010, as well as the presidential election of 2011. Western powers should push for transparent elections and both local and international monitoring of both elections.
The U.S. administration should hasten to appoint the relevant officials dealing with democracy and human rights, and establish a regular forum in U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations and the new strategic dialogue that is dedicated to addressing issues of political reform, and which monitors and engages regularly with the Egyptian government-beyond the normal scope of work of the State Department and its embassies. In addition to working on broad reforms and tracking progress, this forum, as well as the administration, should defend human rights activists when they are persecuted, and should do so both publicly and privately. This forum should also include regular consultation with independent civil society actors.
Efforts to promote political reform are most successful when pursued in a multilateral framework. The relationship Egypt enjoys with Europe avoids some of the pitfalls associated with an exclusive U.S.-Egypt relationship in this regard, and has proven successful in supporting Egyptian civil society in the past. Europe and the U.S. should join forces to creative positive incentives for reform. Multilateral frameworks for human rights enforcement should include international organizations and non-governmental actors, and joint action should be directed at pressuring Egypt to abide by its existing treaty and convention commitments, with positive incentives built in for adherence to those commitments. Undoubtedly, this entails the U.S. and participating governments setting an example themselves. For instance, Obama's stated policy of no tolerance for torture is a powerful example that promises to restore U.S. credibility and moral standing.
With the initial euphoria now having generally waned in the aftermath of the Cairo speech, President Obama is nonetheless still to be commended for raising democracy as one of the key issues in his message. But his abstract treatment of the subject has left many activists and pro-reform advocates feeling that it was nothing more than an exercise in public relations that lacked substance and vision. Moving forward, Obama needs to take steps to demonstrate that this reaching out is sincere, is directed to the people and for their betterment, and not simply an exercise in appeasement with the same underlying motivation to maintain the status quo. Because the Egyptian government has been successful in stalling on reform in the past, manifested in continued enforcement of emergency laws since 1981, the U.S. government should creatively consider positive conditionality which entails offering new financial incentives such as trade advantages in exchange for advances in political reforms. Well-crafted but tough incentives along the lines of the Helsinki Accords, which led to the fall of dictators in Eastern Europe, should also be considered as a model. Benchmarks for advancements should be based on those of international rights organizations or be intelligently negotiated, and should be tied to an established time table. Progress on those benchmarks should be closely monitored and gauged by the political reform forum within the strategic dialogue. Egypt's inclusion in the global market and its status as a key diplomatic player on the world stage requires it to align its democracy and human rights laws and practices with those of the community of democracies.
The challenge with Egypt is real, and will require serious, ongoing commitment, including financial support. Now is not the time to decrease democracy assistance funding. With an upcoming presidential succession in Egypt, now is the time to transfer Obama's words into real action, and demonstrate support for the legitimate aspirations of Egyptians for freedom-this will have important ramifications not just for Egyptian society, but for broader regional and global security goals.
Supporting the efforts of democratic reformers and human rights activists should not be viewed as a form of punishment leveraged by the U.S. towards Egypt. Rather, it is an essential element of a comprehensive relationship; supporting a pluralistic and democratic Egypt will result in a strong and reliable partner in promoting regional peace and stability.
Egyptians seek to live in a democratic nation that respects human rights and is guided by the rule of law. A government committed to such goals would have swift, positive and enduring ramifications for the entire Middle East.
Dina Guirguis is executive director of the Washington-based Voices for a Democratic Egypt, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.