Thursday, February 03, 2011

Game over: Popular sovereignty dies aborning 

Whether "democracy" had a chance in Egypt, or just a chance for something akin to popular sovereignty, the people lost and legitimate government will not rise in Cairo. For a hard-headed and yet dispirited dissection of the Egyptian government's successful suppression of its people and the Obama administration's awful bet -- which still might be the best result for American policy in the short term -- read this from Foreign Policy. Money quote:

The Obama administration, having already thrown its weight behind the military, if not Mubarak personally, thereby facilitating the outcome just described, can be expected to redouble its already bad gamble. Fearing once again that the regime might be toppled, it will lean on the Europeans, the Saudis, and others to come to Egypt's aid. The final nail will be driven into the coffin of the failed democratic transition in Egypt. It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist. The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him.


If the Obama administration had vocally sided with the people it would now be on the wrong side of the surviving military government. But so what? They need our billions in aid and will do what we need to get it. One gets the sense that the Egypt experts in the State Department fairly routinely line up on the side of oppression. Remember the "blogger crisis" five years ago, when the Mubarak government through some bloggers in jail? Congressional Republicans moved to block aid to Egypt, and the State Department went nuts. Yes, the Bush White House brought its weight down in favor of reauthorizing the aid, but (as I understand it) the bureaucratic impetus came from the specialists in Foggy Bottom, who tend to know and sympathize with the Arab governments in the region. I speculate that more or less the same people drove the American response this time, especially since President Obama's crew is much more deferential to the career diplomats than the Bushies were, at least according to popular impression.

The sad thing is, we squandered the noble ambition of Condoleezza Rice's great speech in Cairo in 2005, which presaged this very moment and came down decisively on the side of popular sovereignty:

In this time of great decision, I have come to Cairo not to talk about the past, but to look to the future -- a future that Egyptians can lead and define.

Ladies and Gentlemen: In our world today, a growing number of men and women are securing their liberty.

And as these people gain the power to choose, they create democratic governments to protect their natural rights.

We should all look to a future when every government respects the will of its citizens -- because the ideal of democracy is universal.

For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither.

Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

Until, of course, we don't.

In any case, it is hard to see the Egypt crisis as a victory for American foreign policy. Having hedged our position betwixt and between in Egypt, why would either the dictators or the Arab world or its tired "Arab street" trust the United States to do anything? Even in the world of realpolitik, trust is valuable.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 03, 08:17:00 AM:

So if we side with the "people" and then what? Much like every revolution in phase one the people know what they don't want but don't know what they do want. There is a vacuum over there. There needs to be a transition period for the people to sort it out.  

By Blogger in_awe, at Thu Feb 03, 10:25:00 AM:

The best organized group - even if small and non-representative (think Muslim Brotherhood) - will prevail in a vacuum situation. The alternatives are the regime with its military and goon squads become even more repressive OR the military sides with the people and a coup happens.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 03, 10:25:00 AM:

That "transition period" you refer to is what I find most inscrutable in this series of events in the middle east. "Democracy without liberalism is a fearsome thing", someone smarter than me once said, and the idea of a transition period presumably means that the Arab peoples, Egyptians included, need time in order to develop a concept of liberalism. How do the Arab cultures develop liberalism without starting down this political path? They lack cultural influences that led Europe and western cultures to liberalism (the Renaissance and the Reformation), so popular politics might just be the only way to jumpstart the process.

It's not just a chicken and egg question either, but a central question of cultural conflict between Islam and the west: if we all want to somehow get along without becoming uniformly Moslem, an impossibility that will lead only to nasty, brutish and short lives for most of humanity, then the nutcases over in the middle east need to be liberalized. That "period of transition" shows only fits-and-starts cultural signs of starting of which I am aware, though I certainly admit I'm pretty ignorant on the subject (so please feel free to educate me!).

Political signs of change abound though, like these uprisings, so shouldn't we support these people just on the hope that these protests might be a precursor to a more open, tolerant and liberal society? Or should we just assume these uprisings are just the modern-day equivalant of the uprisings against Turkish rule from the last century that led nowhere other than to the spread of cabalistic fascist rule in many middle eastern countries?  

By Blogger antithaca, at Thu Feb 03, 10:59:00 AM:

There's no reason why we couldn't 'side with the people' and use a military led caretaker government to get Egypt through until elections in Sept.

In the meantime, political parties and institutions to support basic campaigning and voting could be create, etc, etc.

Keeping Mubarak on could only lead to violence and increase the risk of radicalizing events. (I told the Mrs. as much after Obama's speech, and gee, I was right).  

By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Thu Feb 03, 12:04:00 PM:

As I see it, the Obama administration has no construct that links the goal of a stable and democratic Egypt with present circumstances. It seems to be one audible after the other.

Mubarak's offer of elections in September with neither him nor his son eligible seems like a framework on which a democratic transition could happen. But now Obama is calling for a transition NOW. What the hell does that mean? Does that mean that someone in the crowd becomes the leader in a completely non-democratic process that only reinforces the Egyptian way of change? If we are supporting that, have we not again abandoned support for the democratic aspirations of (some of) the Egyptian people, while responding to the loudest voices?

The principle that governments change by elections, on time, seems important to reinforce.

Egypt has, by Mubarak's design, become a nation with only his party and the MB. Some time is needed to fill in the political landscape. September gives some time for that to happen. NOW does not.


By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu Feb 03, 12:20:00 PM:

"They need our billions in aid and will do what we need to get it."

Really? That didn't work with Iran in 1979. Neither does it work with the Israelis, when it comes to their core interests. What makes you think it would work now?

"even if small and non-representative (think Muslim Brotherhood)"

Why does everybody think this all of a sudden? At one point not long ago, every single member of the 'opposition' in the Egyptian government was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. All of them. Now, they are usually labeled as 'independents' because the MB was banned from politics, but they're almost all still members.

The Muslim Brotherhood was being repressed as a threat to the state in the freaking 1950s. They assassinated Anwar Saddat. They fed Islamic Jihad. But now, suddenly in 2011, I keep hearing journalists and the like claiming that they are 'marginal' or 'unrepresentative.' That's flat wrong. Just walk around Cairo. You can see their street propaganda *everywhere.*

"shouldn't we support these people just on the hope that these protests might be a precursor to a more open, tolerant and liberal society?"

Something y'all need to keep in mind when waxing poetic about 'democracy in the Middle East.' To most Arabs (and by most, I mean the grossly overwhelming majority), 'democracy' means 'majority rule.' That's it. Naked populism. To the Iraqi Shi'a, it means revenge against the Sunni Arabs and domination of the Kurds. To the Arab Muslims of Egypt, it means domination (or extermination, or exile) of the Copts and revenge against the Jews. And so on. Institution of Shari'a is wholly legitimate, because a majority wants it that way. How's that for tolerance and liberty?

Does anyone remember how the last set of new Arab elections went? It institutionalized Hamas. A strong majority of Arabs in the electorate deliberately chose an Islamist, xenophobic terrorist group to be their government.

These people don't want 'democracy' as we understand it. They want a panacea. They want revenge and validation. Many of them want war. And the naive idealists among us want to give it to them, so long as it's wrapped in a pretty bow with 'Democracy' written on it. If a revolution in Egypt succeeded, the liberals would celebrate but the hard militant core would take power.

There is also the domino effect to consider. Just today, Jordan announced that if Egypt terminates its peace treaty with Israel (which the MB has promised, to solidify popular support among the Egyptians [think about that for a second]) then they may be forced to follow suit. In one single year, the clock could be set back more than thirty years, completely eradicating *all* elements of the 'Arab-Israeli Peace Process.'

Everything old would be new again.  

By Blogger Don Cox, at Thu Feb 03, 12:20:00 PM:

From an arrested thug: an MP brought him & others in truck saying: "let's beat Americans in Tahrir"

(Source Enduring America site)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 03, 01:42:00 PM:

Here's the sad truth:


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Feb 03, 04:50:00 PM:

Kirsten Powers has Egyptian relatives who are frightened by the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood participation in government. Since this seems to be the Obama preference I would imagine she is less enamored by Obama than she once was.

If Mubarek fights his way out of this box, and retains control, then the Obama administration's frequently stated "get lost" sentiment seems to mean our relations with the Mubarek government are fatally harmed. If Suliemen takes over, he'll likely remember our treatment of Mubarek too, so he's certainly less likely to think much of us. If the military takes over, and crushes the Muslim Brotherhood, how will the Obama administration react? Not approvingly, in all probability.

Lots of questions, and lots of ways to criticize our government's foreign policy in this instance.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Thu Feb 03, 04:52:00 PM:

Egypt wants Western economic choices...the one's they see in the media. They want the government to give them income, education and security.

Trouble is, like the rest of the Middle East, society is mired in tribalism, religious fundamentalism and lacks basic infrasturcture.

Even if the governemnt said "OK", it would never be able to deliver anything remotely like a western capitalistic lifestyle (even the liberal version of it).

So they descend further into despotism, tribalism and chaos.

When are we going to wake the HELL up, start pursuing our energy needs in our own hemishphere and concentrate on protecting ourselves from the mayhem instead of financing it!!!

The guns and tanks pointed at those people are purchased with American tax dollars. Shameful!  

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