Elections in Egypt have become a leading bellwether for how much a US president really cares about democracy in the world.
Egypt, after all, is the second largest recipient of American aid, the most populous Arab nation, and the birthplace of modern radical Islam. In theory, it could become a beacon of liberty for a Middle East largely stuck in medieval ways.
In 2005, when President George W. Bush was strongly pushing democracy in the region as an antidote to terrorism, the political opposition in Egypt won more than one-fifth of the seats in the lower house of parliament.
By contrast, last Sunday’s elections were so full of fraud, violence, ballot rigging, bogus arrests, and other heavy-handed tactics – even by Egyptian standards – that the ruling National Democratic Party “won” nearly all the seats. The opposition was almost wiped out, left with only a few representatives. The vast majority of Egyptians stayed away from the polls, knowing how little their voice means.
It’s clear now that the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak has dropped any pretense about a multiparty system and fair elections as it struggles internally over who will succeed the ailing octogenarian general, who has ruled since 1979.
And then this weekend, the disclosure of secret US dispatches by WikiLeaks revealed this: Mr. Mubarak advised a group of US lawmakers in 2008 to “forget” about democracy in Iraq. The leaked cables also cited US diplomats as saying Egypt is “stubborn and recalcitrant” about taking advice.
The debacle of the Nov. 28 elections should be seen as a major blow to President Obama’s recent rhetoric about democracy. Just two months ago, after meeting with Mubarak, Mr. Obama called for “credible and transparent elections in Egypt.” And in a famous 2009 speech to all Muslims delivered in Cairo, he pledged his commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people.”
At the United Nations in September, he declared that “democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens.” During a recent swing through Asia, he visited only democracies, even calling India, the largest democracy, an “indispensable” partner. Obama is also helping form an alliance of democracies in the region to challenge China’s rise.
But when it comes to applying pressure on Mubarak, Obama has put democracy promotion at a lower priority than other interests. Egypt is a leading opponent of Iran and a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Mubarak knows these security issues are the short-term interests of Obama more than the long-term American role of encouraging global stability through the expansion of freedom.
Mubarak also knows Obama pushes democracy only when “individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed,” as the US president stated at the United Nations. But short of resorting to violence, Egyptians hardly have a chance to “demand a say” – given the regime’s rough suppression of dissent, from bloggers to the Muslim Brotherhood.
From Haiti to the Philippines to Latin America, the US has often not hesitated to bring its muscle to bear on dictators. But for the Obama administration, the reaction to Egypt’s elections was mainly this: The US is “worried” and “disappointed.”
If Obama wants repressed people to stand up for their freedom, he could do better at standing up for them.