The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, February 3, 2011


The Desire for Democracy Is Universal and Eternal; The Competence to Govern Democratically Is Not

What, oh what, should the United States do about Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? Events unexpected in their timing and rate of progress, if not necessarily their likelihood of occurrence, have transformed him, almost overnight, from a right-wing strongman effectively quashing organized dissent for thirty years to an old man teetering on the precipice of forced removal by a popular uprising. Should the Obama Administration be doing more to support the anti-government protestors and encourage Mubarak to vacate office immediately?

The consensus among many pundits of differing ideological stripes is that it should. They argue against past prevailing wisdom that Mubarak, for all his faults, brought stability to Egypt following the assassination of Anwar Sadat as well as welcome moderation to the Arab world, particularly in his willingness to treat peacefully with Israel. Likewise, they argue Mubarak’s loyalty to America, in exchange for massive economic aid, has done little to increase our safety.
Egyptian anti-
government protestors

In fact, author Lawrence Wright postulates in his Pulitzer-prize winning work The Looming Tower that Mubarak’s harsh treatment of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood radicalized this group, pushing several of its leaders beyond national politics into global jihad.

David Brooks of the New York Times cites compelling numbers to suggest the U.S. is fighting the tide of modern history by doing anything other than encouraging the toppling of non-democratic regimes – one hundred nations experiencing popular uprisings, the fall of more than eighty-five authoritarian governments, and the establishment of about sixty-two new democracies over the past twenty years. “Autocracies are more fragile than any other form of government, by far,” Brooks chides those championing repressive governments as stable.

The problem for many is not some great personal love for Mubarak but fear over where Egypt ends up in his absence. Ross Douthat, also of the Times, notes, “even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction.” Others counter this dreadful pending vacuum directly results from our toleration, indeed our reward, of Mubarak’s dictatorial style.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post remembers a 2005 trip to Egypt with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that left him unimpressed with that country’s collection of opposition leaders. His disdain remains today. “This is the Mubarak legacy. In the name of weakening Islamism, he undermined all legitimate opposition, often forcing dissent into the radical mosque. If the alternatives to Mubarak’s rule are poor, it is because he did his best to make it so.”

Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal, agrees. Mubarak’s strategy was “gutting liberal opposition and permitting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to operate just enough to scare the United States and other Western backers.”

Others worry about bad blood toward the U.S. on the Arab street. Reporting from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reports himself “intoxicated” by the “yearning and hopefulness” of ordinary Egyptians risking their safety to call publicly for democracy. However, he worries, “One thing nags at me. These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them.”

The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen conveys the ire of one protestor that “We believe America is against us.” He fretfully predicts, “The resentment could last for generations.” While I cannot help but wish that guys like Thiessen and Kristof had shown greater apprehension over discontent in the Arab street when it opposed the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, this does not make their concerns over its reaction toward our non-involvement in the current Egyptian troubles any less valid.

There is no question that the U.S. made a mistake continuing its political and economic support of Mubarak’s anti-democratic policies. It is but one in a series of post-World War II foreign policy blunders backing regimes that ultimately caused more problems than they resolved. Yet our reactionary rushes to judgment, all for the desirable goal of promoting stability, only increases my reticence at doing exactly the same thing for the equally desirable goal of promoting democracy.

Moreover, I question whether demanding Mubarak’s immediate departure is likely to move Egypt closer to democracy in any significant way. I share the sentiments expressed by thinkers like Brooks and Fukuyama that there is an innate desire for democracy – what they define as “desire for dignity” from government for the governed – that crosses all geographic and cultural boundaries.

However, I believe it is dangerous to conflate this desire with competence for democratic governance, which is highly conditional upon time, place, culture, and other factors. Brooks sanguinely generalizes, “Most countries that have experienced uprisings end up better off,” although he concedes Iran as a glaring exception. Fukuyama points out numerous former Soviet republics that embraced democracy to initial cheering then subsequently “disappointed their hopeful early backers by not producing effective democratic governance.” He argues the same is true for Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Democracy does not magically spring to life once the dictator is gone or even after the first free and fair election has taken place,” Fukuyama admonishes. My chief concern over true democracy in Egypt is not that it has come too slowly to that country but that we may, attempt to force it to come too quickly once again. I agree with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who asserts that Egypt “lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy.”

“I care about democratic values,” Cohen adds, “but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights.” The Egyptian protestors are heartening in their aspirations and their courage but, without intending discouragement of their intentions, I counsel caution regarding their actions. What we have in Egypt right now is more “demobcracy” than democracy. It is very different from democratic governance, let alone Western-style secular democratic governance.

If the protestors in Tahrir Square are budding Founding Fathers, then they are standing closer to their equivalent of a non-lethal (so far) Boston Massacre or Tea Party than they are a Constitutional Convention. While some of the same individuals in our nation’s history may have been involved with both events, fifteen-plus years separated them. The Founders learned many important lessons over this period. Most notably, the disastrous Articles of Confederation taught them that democratic governance by a largely powerless central government was both unmanageable and unsustainable.

Amr Bargisi, a senior partner with the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, reports that many of the middle class young men in the streets of Cairo over the past several days are not protestors but rather standing guard in front of their houses and stores to protect them from looting. They fear unrest and instability from the mob more than they resent limitations on liberty by Mubarak.

Bargisi fear the most likely outcome from whatever individual or group assumes power in Mubarak’s wake will be “a contract between the state and the frightened middle classes to make sure no similar uprising ever happens again.” In other words, even greater repression of free expression and other rights necessary for the genesis of true democratic government.

I would be happy to see the Obama Administration say/do more to support and protect the anti-government protestors in Egypt. However, I think we would stray from the path of wisdom in encouraging Washington to help oust Mubarak as expeditiously as possible. Americans often disdain reactive policies but a go-slow approach may actually strengthen rather than weaken Egypt’s pro-democracy movement in the end.

The plan proposed by Mubarak himself on Tuesday – to remain in power for now but not seek re-election – will give non-radical opposition groups critical necessary months to establish legitimacy and power bases. A mob is a sudden and capricious creature, even when inspired by noble goals. It will take some time for demobcracy to evolve into democracy in a nation and a culture where it has languished under repression for so long.

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