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Egypt's Challenge for U.S. Rights Policy

Author: Mark P. Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights
February 11, 2011

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The Middle East's most populous country is gripped by a struggle to oust its ruler, creating a demonstration effect not just for the Muslim world, but the whole world. Efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to bottle up dissent have failed miserably. Mubarak had held up democracy as the largest threat to stability, and he raised the specter of an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Yet Mubarak's own autocratic government has been the real threat, and the scale of the upheaval in Cairo's streets has proven to be far broader than the Brotherhood. test

[Editor's Note: For a broader look at the history of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, read Mark Lagon's new Markets and Democracy Brief for CFR.]

For the United States, the evolving situation offers an opportunity to recalibrate policies that too often privileged ties to seemingly stable, autocratic regimes over the promotion of reforms in governance and accountability. For three decades, the United States has stood by the Mubarak regime and offered a level of aid second only to Israel. That aid flowed in large part because Egypt made peace with Israel, but also because of counterterrorism cooperation, notably since 9/11. But such arrangements have proven troublesome for Washington.

In the 1979 article that called her to the attention of Ronald Reagan, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Jeane Kirkpatrick criticized President Jimmy Carter for not standing by Iranian and Nicaraguan autocrats and allowing worse anti-U.S. autocrats to take power. Yet friendly tyrants may, in the end, no more advance U.S. interests than those of their own peoples.

Egypt's case shows that the United States and its global partners need to hold dictatorships to a single standard, through a combination of soft power, collective support of moderate civil society voices, and linkage of investment and aid to progress in governance.

The Egyptian example also shows that concentrating on elites will leave the United States blind to change and hamstrung to influence it. President Obama's June 2009 address in Cairo signaled more restrained U.S. engagement with the Egyptian public on rights and democracy issues. The speech marked a shift from what the new administration saw as an overly didactic "freedom agenda" in the Muslim world by the Bush administration. It emphasized cultural particularity in the Muslim world over universal principles of dignity, and instead of engaging the Muslim world as intended, it represented a lost opportunity.

Which is not to say Washington should not give due attention to those elites in charge of lethal force, the military. While militaries have often obstructed democratic development worldwide, they can decisively submit to and protect civilian rule simultaneously, as in much of Latin America in the transition to democracy in states such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile since the 1980s.

Backing the Democratic 'Middle'

The largest segment of U.S. funding for Egypt is military aid--which of late has been some $1.3 billion per year. The non-military assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) since 1975, though less, has totaled some $28 billion. Precious little of that has been tied to increasing political pluralism. So, for three decades the U.S. underwrote Mubarak's effort to eviscerate the middle in Egypt--letting him present a false choice between himself and Islamism. Elsewhere it had learned there was not merely a binary choice between friendly tyrants and radicals aligned against U.S. interests. For example, with U.S. backing, the democratic "middle" triumphed in the 1980s in El Salvador, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

But it persisted in supporting an Egyptian dictator. In a 2007 op-ed used as grounds for a sedition sentence, Egyptian scholar Saad Eddin Ibrahim wrote of the Mubarak regime's wide-scale detention and torture of opponents: "My fear is that these abuses will spread if Egypt's allies and friends continue to stand by silently while this regime suppresses the country's democratic reformers."

Ibrahim's fear was well-founded. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's emphasis on reform in Egypt waned. And democracy aid for Egypt underwent a sharp cut from $54.8 million in fiscal year 2008 to $22 million in fiscal year 2009, according to USAID figures.

[T]he United States and its global partners need to hold dictatorships to a single standard, through a combination of soft power, collective support of moderate civil society voices, and linkage of investment and aid to progress in governance.

But U.S-based and other foreign media, connected through social media with Egypt's dissidents, continued to follow the story and seemed to face the brunt of the regime's backlash against the latest pro-democracy demonstrations. The Obama administration was right to speak out strongly in their defense amid the crackdown.

Blogging and other social media have been a crucial part of the latest flowering of dissent in Cairo. The detention by security services for twelve days of Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian executive of Google who has been active in organizing protests, represents the futile effort of the Egyptian authorities to repress social media. When authorities sought to cut off Internet and cell phone service, the demonstrations still cohered. While remembering that the U.S. government's basic posture toward a regime is even more important, a global U.S. effort not just to defend but actively exploit social media is a bargain for promoting global freedom.

Multilateral Democracy Promotion

The UN and other international bodies have not been involved in Egypt's pro-democracy upheaval, but they can play a substantive, long-term role in institution building in the country.

The United States should take advantage of the opportunity to advance reform in a nation of strategic importance by multi-lateralizing democracy promotion. The UN has a little appreciated track record in building and promoting democratic institutions. In his new book, The Unfinished Global Revolution, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown laments how a UN effort to promote prosperity through democratic governance was sidelined.

From the late 1990s until late in the following decade, the UN Development Program prioritized anti-corruption, civil society, women's political participation, and explicit electoral democracy projects as building blocks of economic development. And then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005 launched the UN Democracy Fund, with a minimum of 85 percent of its grants to promote democracy going to civil society actors rather than governments or other UN agencies.

But UN priorities changed once the bloom was off the rose of liberal theories of "political economy" with the financial crash and global recession of the last three years. Development funding, if tied at all to governance, began to focus more on capacity than democracy. And UNDP country teams reverted to a legacy of not rocking the boat with host governments to liberalize politically.

Organizations like the UN, the European Union, and the African Union must push for democracy in Egypt and elsewhere. Here lies a special role for the EU: to back "the middle" worldwide, applying diplomacy and economic resources. This would be a test case for the effectiveness of the recently created position of EU foreign minister and of the Brussels apparatus to target its estimable democratization assistance resources.

The Way Forward

Just last year, global democracy was seen to be in retreat. Stefan Halper's book, The Beijing Consensus, captured the assumption that the United States had been supplanted by China as preferred global patron and investor which, unlike the United States or the International Monetary Fund, placed no good governance or human rights conditions on its largesse. The new model for developing world prosperity was no longer a democratic one. Egypt's evolving story shows vividly why a eulogy for nurturing democratization was premature.

Three steps to nurture freedom are crucial. First, the role of mass opinion and new media in Egypt show how public diplomacy remains crucial to U.S. soft power. Concerted public diplomacy could amplify the sense that just rule works and has momentum. There is still a role for publicly funded surrogates for private media gagged by autocracies.

Al-Jazeera and private media play a major role in the region, but the U.S. government should not just create value-free carbon copies or consider government-funded public diplomacy a relic of the Cold War. U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is exceptional amidst largely flaccid public diplomacy today, championing pluralism in the former Soviet Union and Iran. As the United States must tighten its budgetary belt, we need more bargains like RFE/RL.

Second, multilateral means can bolster the "middle"--not just to win power, but govern effectively. The architecture for promoting the vital center in transitioning nations needs to be built up. For instance, the UNDP democracy focus could be resuscitated.

Finally, the United States and other leading global democracies need to have the courage of liberal "political economy" convictions. They need to insist that aid, loans, and investment to the developing world reinforce resilience of reforming governments and not prop up stagnant, brutal ones.

This single standard should guide dealings with dictators, while remaining flexible and subject to nuanced diplomacy. Cairo's protests could embolden these liberal convictions, and may yet prove the "Beijing Consensus" a moment rather than an epoch.

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