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November 10, 2008

Re: Historic Election
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Thanks to David Shorr for pointing us to this bipartisan statement on “revitalizing international cooperation.” I always look forward to reading what comes out of the Stanley Foundation. They’ve worked hard to demonstrate that it is possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together on key foreign policy concerns, this being no exception. That said, I want to comment on a couple sections from the statement, which I think are especially interesting for discussion:

Because the United States has an ambitious vision about the spread of human rights, prosperity, and democracy, we must recognize that it will only be achieved over time. Such recognition points toward engagement in a steady and measured effort rather than the pursuit of precipitous revolutionary change.

Agreed. Middle East democracy is not going to happen overnight. At the same time, because the region has proven exceptionally resistant to democratic reform, any successful effort in this regard will require tremendous political will and a commitment from policymakers to really think innovatively. I worry sometimes that gradualist approaches can result in postponing difficult, and urgent, decisions. For example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is 80. His health is suffering. There is no institutionalized mechanism for succession. Couple that with increased popular discontent, reflected in the upsurge of spontaneous protests and riots, and a deteriorating economic situation, and it could very well get messy.

Committing ourselves to real support for democracy and democrats in the Middle East is urgent for other reasons. Obama has a window of opportunity. Like all windows, this one will close. For the first time in recent memory, Arabs and Muslims are cheering on an American president (and, for that matter, praying for him). One of their longstanding grievances has been American support for dictatorships in the region. This isn’t to say we’re going to stop working with the Egyptian government (we need their cooperation on key national security issues). But it is to say that we should be making clear - not just with rhetoric but through policy changes on the ground - that we care about the state of human rights and political reform in the region. Otherwise, Middle Eastern audiences will start to lose faith in the in the prospect of real political change.

Also, it’s not as if we currently have a neutral position, and it’s just a matter of waiting patiently for Arab civil society and political parties to organize and put pressure on their own governments. Currently, we support these repressive governments with billions of dollars of aid. In other words, the U.S. is, as things stand now, an obstacle to structural political reform in the region.

Over time, leaders who are repressive internally or aggressive and disruptive internationally will encounter an international community less tolerant of their actions. The long war will also open up political space and offer outside inspiration and support for local populations hungry for democratic change—making it less likely or necessary for the United States to intervene to achieve these goals.

This is generally true for most cases. It has not, however, been true for the Middle East. Leaders in the region have been repressive internally for more than five decades. But the U.S. and other Western powers have been more than just tolerant. They have actively supported these governments despite increasing evidence that they're not serious about internal reform (Egypt’s freedom house scores are worse today than they were in 1976. Jordan’s scores are significantly lower today than they were in 1992). Ideally, the U.S. wouldn’t have to intervene to achieve its goals (on human rights and democracy), but, as I mentioned earlier, the United States has generally been an obstacle to reform in these countries. This means that we would have to “intervene” to remove ourselves as an obstacle. 


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Those in the realist school believe that democracy promotion is waste of America's time and against its interests. However I disagree with this view because helping Egypt to develop a civil society would be in America's national security interest. America must not allow Egypt to follow in the same footsteps as Iran in the seventies in which the United States did not talk to the opposition and it also allowed the Shah to crack down on any type political opposition. The United States can avoid this path by establishing contact with the Egyptian oppositional parties and making the Egyptian government at least hold fair elections on the provincial level.

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