Egypt’s Options

From WaPo, by Elliott Abrams, a former aide to President Bush:

In 2003, George Bush asked:

“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”

It continues:

Of course, neither [Mubarak] nor we can know for sure what Egyptians really think; last fall’s parliamentary election was even more corrupt than the one in 2005. And sometimes the results of a first free election will find the moderates so poorly organized that extreme groups can eke out a victory, as Hamas did when it gained a 44-to-41 percent margin in the Palestinian election of 2006. But we do know for sure that regimes that make moderate politics impossible make extremism far more likely. Rule by emergency decree long enough, and you end up creating a genuine emergency. And Egypt has one now.

Because suppression creates a vaccuum of leadership:

The three decades Hosni Mubarak and his cronies have already had in power leave Egypt with no reliable mechanisms for a transition to democratic rule. Egypt will have some of the same problems as Tunisia, where there are no strong democratic parties and where the demands of the people for rapid change may outstrip the new government’s ability to achieve it. This is also certain to be true in Yemen, where a weak central government has spent all its energies and most of its resources simply staying in power.

Then Abrams observes:

This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the [Obama] administration’s approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. “Engagement” has not been the problem, but rather the administration’s insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.

If the Arab regimes learn the wrong lessons and turn once again to their police and their armies, the U.S. reaction becomes even more important. President Obama’s words of support for both the demonstrators and the government late Friday, after speaking with Mubarak, were too little, too late. He said Mubarak had called for “a better democracy” in Egypt, but Obama’s remarks did not clearly demand democracy or free elections there. We cannot deliver democracy to the Arab states, but we can make our principles and our policies clear. Now is the time to say that the peoples of the Middle East are not “beyond the reach of liberty” and that we will assist any peaceful effort to achieve it – and oppose and condemn efforts to suppress it.

Such a statement would not elevate our ideals at the expense of our interests. It turns out, as those demonstrators are telling us, that supporting freedom is the best policy of all.

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  • Of course, it needs to be remembered here in the critique of Obama that Mr. Abrams was advisor to George Bush, who last I knew was president for the previous 8 years and served under President Reagan, so he has plenty of experience dealing with our Egyptian ally!

  • Scot McKnight

    I say that very thing in the first line, Bob. Yes, he’s defending his old boss… but the position is worth considering regardless of who wrote it.

  • American policy has been to back autocracy where deemed necessary — Obama’s response, so far, has been, as far as I can see, wait and see, while encouraging an orderly move toward democracy.

    My sense is that Mubarak is negotiating a way out. It doesn’t look like he’ll be able to regain control. Our fear of Islamism has given support to autocratic regimes from the Shah to Mubarak, and it’s rarely worked out in our favor.

    Ultimately it will be the Egyptian people who will decide this, not the Americans!

  • Scot McKnight

    Bob, I agree: but we have to support the people.

  • Abrams, really?

    Who was indicted for his role in Iran-Contra and gave winks and nods to dictators in central America…


  • Scot,

    Yes, I’m in full agreement — we have to give support to the people, but are we ready for what comes next? I’m hopeful, but many are fearful — and thus cling to the old. Here is what I said on Saturday.