Sunday, January 30, 2011

Support Democracy

American interests are best served by promoting the pursuit of freedom and self-determination rather than supporting regimes reviled by their own people.

In the traditionally stagnant Arab world, events have moved at lightning speed in recent days.  The unexpected revolt against the dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, ignited by the self-immolation of one disaffected young man, has led to region-wide protests by citizens fed up with their own repressive leaders.  Now, the area's most populous nation and most significant power, Egypt, is ablaze in revolution, and the 30-year-plus reign of aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak is on the brink.

Official U.S. reaction to the plight of key American ally Mubarak appears to be slowly adapting.  Only a few days ago, Vice President Joe Biden rejected the notion that the Egyptian leader was a dictator, and his comments about the aims of the protests were lukewarm at best.  This morning, in a sign that the Obama administration's position was evolving as Mubarak's position has weakened, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton spoke of "an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people", though no calls were made for Mubarak to step down.

As Egypt's police state falls into a state of chaos, the U.S. undoubtedly has a critical role to play.  Although Mubarak has been aligned with American interests in the region, we cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the mass populist sentiment in the Arab world on this issue.  We are witnessing a struggle to establish self-determination and democratic values, ideals that Americans cherish and ostensibly seek to promote--our allegiance here should be obvious.

The uncertainty of how this situation will play out is understandably worrisome for U.S. policymakers, but events of this past month are an obvious culmination of social and technological trends.  Demographics in Egypt and other Arab countries now skew heavily to the younger generation, who are fed up with living in a repressive system whose establishment pre-dates their births.  And in a 21st century environment connected by satellite TV, mobile phones, and the Internet, it has never been so easy for them to organize and spread popular discontent with corruption and lack of economic opportunities.

While it's too early to tell how Egypt's revolution will turn out, from my point of view, comparisons of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian clerics are overblown.  And the apparent centralization of the anti-Mubarak protesters on Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular diplomat and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as their leader is quite encouraging.  Certainly it appears the anti-Mubarak coalition recognizes the importance of selecting a leader who can be viewed with some confidence by the rest of the world to potentially run the country.

Going forward, the U.S. needs to be cognizant that propping up a ruler viewed as illegitimate by his people may ensure stability in the short-term, but it won't last.  The desire for self-determination is inexorable, so instead of engendering a people embittered against America, we should show our support for these democratic uprisings.  For countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and other future revolutionary spots (not just in the Middle East, but also Africa, where many entrenched strongmen preside over looted states), us being true to our values stands the greatest chance of having those countries produce workable partners rather than hostile extremists.


Arabian Knight said...

Generation-Y stakes its claim at the world...and it is good.

Phil Ries said...

Even if our leaders did like this change, what is the benefit of showing U.S. government support? Maybe our political support would do more harm than good.

Put another way, I doubt that the extreme cases of U.S. involvement like Iraq and Afghanistan would be seen as Arab self-determination in the eyes of the people in the region, so how do we show that we view Egypt differently?

Jay said...

Phil, a great question. You'll recall George W. Bush often spoke about democracy promotion in the Muslim world, and he was right to do so. Unfortunately that message got conflated with the Iraq War; the Obama administration meanwhile has stood by a corrupt stooge in Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, but I get sidetracked...

We know something's definitely off when we see Mubarak's goon squads, whom we financed, firing tear gas canisters labeled "Made in the USA" at pro-democracy protesters.

How do we show our support? I don't think it has to do with picking candidates or political parties in those countries; that is easily seen as overt meddling, and those we favored would lose legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

However, I think there is plenty that can be done to enable a positive climate whereby people in the Arab world can feel more free. There is the obvious-- scolding/bribing/cajoling/threatening our autocrat partners we work with, and provide significant $ and military aid to, to take steps to fight corruption and create more economic opportunities for their people.

Beyond that, though, we can encourage the development of civil society. We can speak up on behalf of legislators and members of the judiciary so they can be encouraged to perform their functions rather than submit to the autocrat. We can advocate for freedom of expression and those who have been punished for using it. We can promote open and honest journalism (and even provide our own, like Radio Free Europe did for Eastern Europe during the Cold War). We can promote education and literacy, and fund and publicize health initiatives.

Basically, we can frame our actions so that we are seen as attentive to the ordinary people of those countries, not just their repressive leaders. When we are not seen as enabling the oppressors, and if we can even be seen as providing outlets against oppression or supporting alleviations of social problems, then I think we are seen more favorably by those populaces. In turn, our own national interests are better served.