Don’t Egyptians deserve democracy?

Not long ago, Senator McCain urged President Obama to fully support the Iranian people’s quest for democracy. But the credibility of such courageous words rests on their universality
Islam Qasem
11 February 2011

About a year and a half ago the people of Iran said enough to tyranny. They poured into the streets to claim their freedom, their dignity, and their right for free and fair elections. The rest of the world watched with a sympathetic eye. Western governments simmered in optimism, hoping that the Iranian repressive regime would be swept away by the sea of protesters. The US government imposed unprecedented sanctions against senior Iranian officials for “sustained and severe violations of human rights.” Western pundits and politicians swiftly embraced the Iranian Green Movement.

Forward to the present. One cannot help but wonder why American and EU politicians have been far less enthusiastic about the January 25 movement in Egypt and its demand for ousting a dictatorial president backed by an authoritarian regime. After the moment of awe passed, the US reaffirmed its support to Mubarak’s regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: “There are risks with the transition to democracy. It can be chaotic. It can cause short-term instability.” Not much different has been the EU response. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton called on the Egyptian government to “seek serious and open dialogue with all political forces.” In contrast to the western reaction to the Green Movement, the responses of the US and the EU to the January 25 movement has been detached from reality, circumscribed, and cool. To say the least, western support for Mubarak’s regime has been disappointing.

For 30 years, the Egyptian people have lived under an authoritarian regime, and a draconian emergency law that has no other purpose but to intimidate and jail secular and religious opposition and to suffocate free speech. At the helm of this repressive regime stood Mubarak flanked by his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. It is no surprise that at this crucial moment in the life of the regime Mubarak handpicked Omar Suleiman to fill the post of Vice President. His loyalty is unquestionable and his experience in micromanaging repressive apparatus is unparalleled. Suleiman made no secret of his vision for tomorrow’s Egypt. His Egypt is neither ready for democracy nor for lifting the 30-year old emergency law. None of this is news to the US and the EU, for Suleiman is well-known in the corridors of western powers. 

Even more shocking but equally disappointing is how far the skepticism towards Egyptian democracy runs throughout western societies. Many in mainstream western media have framed the standoff between the regime and the people as a choice between the stability of the pro-western Mubarak’s regime and the doomsday of anti-western theocracy. A survey conducted by Rasmussen Report shows that only 5% of Americans believe toppling the regime would be good for the US while 38% believe it would be bad.

So, wherein does Egypt differ from Iran? Why, despite the massive protest for democracy, have western governments not multiplied pressure on Mubarak to step down? Why have they forfeited an opportunity to live up to their ideals and commitment to democracy? Why have they settled for the false notion that not all nations are worthy of freedom and dignity?

The answer is no secret: the west fears Egypt might turn into a second Iran, an Islamic theocracy ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood; and they also worry about the security implications for Israel. It is no wonder that they have supported Mubarak’s dictatorship for three decades. After all, in their eyes, Mubarak has done a superb job in keeping the Muslim Brotherhood at bay and accommodating Israel’s security demands.

Yet here lies the crushing hypocrisy and sad irony - the west has propped up a repressive regime all along while acting as a spokesperson for human rights, freedom and democracy. But the western response to the January 25 movement goes beyond hypocrisy; it is also a flawed policy. Not only have western governments allowed themselves to be wrapped up in fear of the Muslim Brotherhood without any clear understanding of the movement’s agenda and dynamic, but they have also failed to see the capacity of democracy to act as a powerful vehicle of moderation and stability in the region.

Mubarak’s regime has made Israel not more but less secure. By sharing intelligence and providing diplomatic cover for Israel, Egypt enabled Israel to shy away from taking tough decisions in the direction of resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. Instead, a conflict with a well known solution - the land for peace formula - has turned into a bargaining chip for Mubarak to receive $1.5 billion to $2.0 billion annually from the US in exchange for a security card in the hands of Israel to deflect criticism. Like all bad policies, western support for a dictatorial regime has caused more damage than good: a discredited peace roadmap, a combustible Egyptian street at odds with its own government and suspicious of western intentions, and weak democratic institutions.

Not long ago, Senator McCain wrote: “If President Obama were to unleash America’s full moral power to support the Iranian people - if he were to make their quest for democracy into the civil rights struggle of our time - it could bolster their will to endure in their struggle, and the result could be genuinely historic.” These courageous words command our respect, but their credibility stems from their universality. After all, liberal democracy stands for universality of human dignity and the right of all people to freely choose their government.

Imagine if western powers fully endorsed Egyptian democracy. Not only would they vindicate themselves but they would also win hearts and minds in the Arab world in a way they will never do by supporting dictators. It is too good an opportunity to miss.

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