Terms of Engagement

Let’s Try This Again

Egypt could be a watershed moment for democracy promotion in the Arab world -- but only if the United States understands how it went wrong the last time.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

I recently went back to my 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda, in order to deliver a mea culpa on behalf of all of us democracy promoters who failed to foresee the People Power moment now sweeping the Arab world. I was delighted, instead, to discover the following: “How long will the next generation, primed by the Internet and satellite news, put up with repression and paralysis? … Would it really be so surprising if the Egyptian people went from stoicism to confrontation? … It may not be an act of realism but rather of naïveté to once again put all our chips on ‘moderate’ dictators such as Hosni Mubarak.”

Yay me. But if you had asked me “OK, how long?” I would have said, “Not all that soon.” At least in the short run, I assumed, democratization in the Middle East would be a matter of whatever modest openings autocratic regimes grudgingly permitted. And this assumption was widespread. In an essay in Beyond the Façade: Political Reform in the Arab World, Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy write, “For Egypt to move toward democracy, the ruling establishment would have to share a great deal more power and open the system up to much more competition than it has to date.” And of course it wasn’t likely to do that. “For the time being,” Larry Diamond wrote in 2008 in The Spirit of Democracy, “the moment of democratic reform in the Arab world has passed.”

Democratization, in short, meant “reform”: a process pushed from below but ultimately granted from above. And because Arab autocrats understood perfectly well that real reform would lead inevitably to demands for wholesale change they could not survive, they had learned how to open the valves just enough to let frustrated citizens blow off steam and then return to their lives of benumbed acceptance. It appeared to be a highly sustainable system. In a 2005 essay, scholar Daniel Brumberg called these states “liberal autocracies.” During that brief interlude after the Tunisian people had risen up but before the Egyptians had, it was often noted that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had lacked the Machiavellian foresight to let fake political parties bloom and keep independent media on a suitably short leash. The autocracy hadn’t been liberal enough.

Why were most of us so wedded to the reform-from-the-top model? I suppose because it was familiar — from Latin America, for example — and because the alternative seemed so unlikely, at least in the short run. A typical demonstration in Egypt consisted of a few hundred brave activists surrounded by several thousand riot police and hired thugs. The great mass of people seemed unwilling to confront state power. Perhaps it was a matter of political culture: The Arab world had a “dignity” tradition, but not a “rights” tradition. In Pakistan, with its British heritage of constitutionalism, lawyers had taken to the streets to protest the mistreatment of judges. Equally gross violations of the rule of law had provoked nothing comparable in Egypt.

Arab citizens turned out to be more like people elsewhere than we had thought: Decades of repression and injustice had brought them to the boiling point. The farcically rigged parliamentary elections in Egypt this past December may have provided the last necessary increment of popular outrage. Modern media did the rest: both by bringing thrilling images of revolt into every household and by allowing activists to mobilize vast numbers of people without the institutions — political parties, labor unions, professional associations — that had been required in the past.

And so Tunisia and Egypt are not “liberalizing,” but rather, at least if all goes well — a giant if, of course — will pass directly from dictatorship to democracy at some point in the coming months. This is incredibly thrilling, and also dangerous. States that hold elections before they’ve had the chance to evolve away from ancient autocratic habits tend to become what Fareed Zakaria called “illiberal democracies” — the opposite, more or less, of the liberal autocracy. Africa is full of states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo that have the formal trappings and official nomenclature of democracy, but none of the accountability or even genuine representativeness. “People power” brought democracy to the Philippines without significantly changing the corruption and fecklessness of the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos.

It’s a dangerous moment, but also a golden opportunity. The vast American machinery of democracy promotion in the Arab world had absolutely nothing to do with the events of the last month or so — because it was predicated on a “liberalization” model that even advocates recognized wasn’t going anywhere. But if there is to be an effective transition to democracy, the civil society organizations and nascent political parties that American and European funds have been nurturing will serve as the means by which mass enthusiasm can be channeled into participation and citizens can monitor and help shape the actions of their government.

The golden opportunity is to help Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps others to hold free and fair elections, and over the long term to develop the institutions that broaden and sustain democracy. I asked Kenneth Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute, what this would entail in practice. “First,” he said, “the requests have to come from local actors; you have to be standing behind them.” That said, he noted that experience in Eastern Europe and elsewhere showed that in the run-up to transitional elections, organizations like his own can make a difference by advising officials on the reform of laws governing the function of political parties, electoral commissions, and the media; by working with civil society organizations engaged in election monitoring; and by helping political parties organize and develop platforms.

But democracy promotion institutions can only do just so much; the most difficult and dangerous issues require sustained diplomatic engagement. Washington must make it clear that Mubarak’s apparent decision to use security forces to wreak mayhem on protesters will destroy relations between the two countries. If Mubarak steps down, the White House must push for an inclusive transitional government and must seek to limit the power of the Army in any new government, so that Egypt does not become, like Pakistan, a military state with a feeble civilian government. These are, of course, Egyptian questions, but Egyptians will inevitably look to Washington to see where it stands. “We have to lead on democracy and human rights,” as Wollack says.

Will that happen? For all its rhetorical commitment to a democratic Arab world, Barack Obama’s administration cannot help but feel apprehensive about the consequences for U.S. national security. Some policy experts, such as Leslie Gelb, have warned of the calamity of a government dominated by the broadly popular Muslim Brotherhood, which, like a great many Egyptians, rejects the state of Israel and supports the radicals of Hamas. With this in mind, Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to former President George W. Bush, has suggested that the United States try to delay elections in Egypt so that “civil society and non-Islamist political parties can emerge.”

This is a temptation that must be resisted. First, it wouldn’t do any good: If people want elections, they won’t be dissuaded by being told they’re not “ready” for them (even when they’re not). Second, it would reinforce the view that the United States only believes in democracy when the outcome is to its own liking. Third, it’s probably unnecessary because the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seems to be shying away from power rather than actively seeking it, while Islamists in Tunisia are both less popular and more moderate. And finally, the most effective way for the United States to shape outcomes in an increasingly democratic Arab world is to be seen as a champion of popular aspirations. What American policymakers did over the last half-dozen years to promote democracy in the Middle East mattered much less than they thought; what they do now will matter a great deal.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.