Democracy and the US Dilemma in Egypt

As millions of pro- democracy demonstrators barricaded themselves in Cairo’s Liberation Square for eighteen days before Hosni Mubarak finally succumbed to their demands and tendered his resignation, President Obama showered generous praise on the young Egyptians who made the unprecedented revolutionary change in Egypt possible. His speech welcoming Mubarak’s resignation put an end to a US policy which fluctuated between advocating Mubarak’s immediate departure, total restructuring of the regime, and a “smooth transition.” The Egyptian dictator is accused by his own people of corruption, profiteering, torture, and denial of basic human rights and civil liberties. As a sub contactor for the United States, and a principal ally of Israel, he incurred the wrath of millions of Arabs beyond Egypt, and the Egyptian uprising has already promised to generate a seismic regional shift and a possible disruption of the regional and global balance of power. Herein lay the Obama Administration’s meandering, giving US policy an incoherent character, if not a totally confused appearance. Now after hiding behind slogans such as gradualism, orderly succession, and the need to prevent chaos, US policy has come squarely on the side of the pro-democracy movement.

Dumping Mubarak is likely to leave his colleagues in Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Morocco, among others, disillusioned with America’s guarantees of regime security in the Middle East, rendering them no more secure than Marshal Ky and General Thieu in Vietnam back in the 1970s, and other dictators in Latin America during the last Century. Hence the pre-resignation strategy of a possible exchange of an oppressive thief for a bloodstained torturer. The latter, Omar Suleiman would ascend to the presidency and insures that Mubarak’s regime would continue without Mubarak. The status-quo would have been preserved and the regime would remain intact. This was the scenario that lay behind the on-again-off again approach of Barrack Obama. But with Mubarak’s resignation that scenario remained just that- a scenario. Obama was gleeful offering his blessings to the revolution, and waited for the next step.

As the self-appointed controller of the strategic balance, the US has a rare opportunity to re-evaluate its ailing Mideast policy to ward off further disaster, and foster stability and tranquility in a rocky area. The Egyptian pro-democracy movement accused the regime of anti-democratic behavior and egregious violation of human rights and democratic governance.

Since September, 2001, US administrations have advanced the democracy slogan as a remedy for the malignancy which produced the debacle of September 11. The neo-conservatives of the Bush era had posited that the culture that produced the perpetrators would have to be rehabilitated, if not restructured, with potent injections of democratic principles and reformist values. The problem with this cure, however, is that democracy is not a commodity suitable for export and import, which entail a certain degree of financial or strategic gain. The would be exporter-the United States-and the importer, in this case the Arabs, are not engaged in a reciprocal arrangement for mutual gain.

A colonialist legacy and a deficient political culture have militated against the infusion of democracy in the Arab world for centuries. As long as the region was coveted by foreign powers bent on domination, democracy was kept off the real agenda indefinitely. Democracy entailed independence while colonialism assumed dependency. The essence of this dichotomy has not changed since the forcible removal of independent-minded local leaders by foreign powers began in the 1830s.

What type of democracy does Washington plan to export to the Arabs? It is neither the type associated with egalitarianism and social justice nor is it the political western democracy, which features elections, civil liberties and separation of powers, majority rule, among other instruments of political participation. It must be noted, however, that majority rule, considered a basic tenet of political democracy, does not necessarily guarantee respect for human rights. The majority of the populations in democratic societies have often supported policies that involved serious violations of human rights. For example, a majority of the American people supported policies of racial segregation, which enjoyed an official sanction from the Supreme Court (not an institution representing majorities) from 1897 (Plessey V. Ferguson) until 1954 (Brown v. the Board of Education). Moreover, a majority of the American people supported settler colonialism and acquiesced in the genocide and dismemberment of the Native Americans. A majority also supported US economic colonialism in Central and South America for three centuries. A majority also supported policies which coddled human rights violators in the Philippines under Marcos, Haiti under Duvaliere, S. Korea under Park, Iran under the Shah, Zaire under Mobutu, Indonesia under Suharto, and the list grows longer. Indeed, a majority of Americans have either supported or acquiesced in policies that propped up Arab dictators and Israeli assassins.

Now, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the weapon of democracy and globalization was utilized by Bush I and Clinton as a pillar of their new world orders. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, commenced his presidency as one who did not believe in such things as globalization, nation-building and teaching democracy. But the horrendous tragedy of September 11th afforded him the chance to employ these projects in the service of spreading US hegemony and consolidating imperial rule. In November 2003, George W. Bush coined a new phrase in his pursuit of national American security: “global democratic revolution.” We were told that Iraq and Afghanistan were two “beneficiaries” of this revolution. It may also be that Saudi Arabia and possibly Iran, among others, were included in Bush’s democratic revolutionary plans. This could mean a cultural change forced from outside that would liberalize and secularize these societies, which tend to be inundated by the religious ethos, which makes them presumably receptive to terrorism.

For such accusations to be leveled against an ally and a pillar of American hegemony in the Middle East for nearly six decades might seem rather strange at this time. It is not as if Saudi Arabia has suddenly abandoned its value system and the underpinnings of the special relationship which bonded the two countries together for all these years. In fact, as we all know, the United States encouraged and promoted policies at variance with liberal democracy, secularism and human rights in Mossadeq’s Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The Reagan Codicil of 1983 postulated that America will not allow any domestic revolution in the Peninsula. “Saudi Arabia will not become another Iran,” said President Reagan. Thus, while it is normal for the American political system to rotate political elites every four years or so, it was not permissible for the Saudis to do the same. Similarly, the Palestine Authority is the recipient of US “guarantees” that Mahmoud Abbas would remain as the PA’s unchallenged leader. Hence the electoral victory of Hamas in January, 2000 was dismissed by Washington, Israel and the EU allies as a non-event. Palestine would remain, together with Fateh, as Abbas’s fiefdom indefinitely. So could Mubarakism, even without Mubarak.

Why, we must ask, this sudden discovery of the urgent need for democracy after decades of benign, if not maligned neglect? What kind of a democracy could be kept at bay for decades, but suddenly emerges under George W. as a panacea? The answer to these questions is simple. The neo-conservatives who wielded great influence over Bush’s foreign policy used democracy to justify a war against Iraq which would give the US a permanent foothold in the region, not unlike its naval presence in the Pacific, which started in the Philippines during the early 1900s.

We were also told that democracy and peace in Palestine/Israel would be the dividends of the war sought by the neo-conservatives. Unfortunately, both promised dividends have proven to be fraudulent, just as the Bush/ Cheney rationale for the invasion of Iraq itself has been proven fraudulent. The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney made a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2004 in which he said that democratic reform was essential to a peaceful resolution of the longstanding Arab-Israeli dispute. But Inasmuch as that assertion embodied the notion that democracy is the precondition for peace, Isn’t time for Washington to revisit its entire policy in the whole Middle East to insure that democracy can indeed flourish in an atmosphere of political dignity. As long as the Palestinians live under Israeli control and are humiliated daily, they won’t be attracted by the virtues of democracy. The same is largely true of the Iraqis under American occupation, and the same is true for the Egyptians who had to endure three decades of Mubarak’s oppressive rule and Israel’s strategic alliance.

Many in the Arab world will question America’s moral right to preach democracy and human rights, particularly when it denies these rights to its own poor, many of whom are Afro-Americans who have more of their young people in jails than in schools. The horrendous conditions in America’s prison camp in Guantanamo casted a dark shadow on the latest commodity which the Arabs are pressured to import. The torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghuraib and the use of psychological pressure will remain as a stain on America’s record in the Middle East. As far as democracy is concerned, the Arab world and the United States are at cross purposes. The pursuits of democracy and re-colonization are not only contradictory; they are also irreconcilable.

In its quest for undisputed global hegemony, the U.S. relies on established and familiar doctrines, which embody the ingredients of a real crusade, the components of messianic campaigns. Washington’s urgent call for reform and democracy in the Arab world smacks of Wilsonian idealism- his “war to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy.” The ongoing crusade against Muslims and international terrorists is rooted in an expansionist ideology that can be traced back to manifest destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, the anti-Soviet Rollback of the 1950s and 1980s. It is a most appropriate time for Washington to separate neo-colonialism and neo-liberal policies from true democratic rule and social justice. It is an opportunity for the US to seek equality and cooperation in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, instead of perpetuating the policies of domination and hegemony.

NASEER ARURI is Chancellor Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His latest book (with the late Samih Farsoun) is Palestine and the Palestinians: A Social and Political History.