Egyptian protests: How Bush and Obama both failed the cause of democracy.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 7 2011 6:52 AM

Helping Egyptian Democrats

What worked in the former Soviet Union could have worked in Egypt.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Protests in Egypt. Click image to expand.
Anti-government demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday

MUNICH—If you closed your eyes at the right moment during the security conference here on Saturday, everything suddenly melted away. The German luxury hotel vanished, replaced by cement walls and fountains. The Northern European winter became a hot summer day along the Nile. Hillary Clinton, in a brown suit and gold necklace, morphed into Condoleezza Rice, in a gray suit and pearls.

So similar were the words of these two American secretaries of state, in fact, that one had to pinch oneself in order not to confuse February 2011 with June 2005. Six years ago, Rice gave her famous "democracy" speech at the American University of Cairo. During that lecture she declared, among other things, that "for 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East—and we achieved neither." Now things would change, she promised.

"Egypt's elections, including the parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and participate, and speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation." Rice argued against those who fear that "democracy leads to chaos, conflict, and terror," declaring that, on the contrary, "freedom and democracy are the only ideas powerful enough to overcome hatred, division, and violence."

Clinton put it differently—but only slightly. She too spoke of free elections, as well as of "good governance, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, transparency and a free press, strong political parties, protection for the rights of minorities."  Some leaders in the region, she noted, raise "fears that allowing too much freedom will … lead to chaos and calamity." But, like Rice, she declared that on the contrary, "If the events of the last weeks prove anything, it is that governments who consistently deny their people freedom and opportunity are the ones who will, in the end, open the door to instability."

In between those two speeches, American foreign policy traversed a full circle. Not long after Rice's Cairo speech, the Bush administration began to retreat from its "freedom agenda," at least in public, following the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's steadfast refusal to step aside. It may be true, as a former Bush administration official in Munich argued, that he and his colleagues continued to push that agenda, behind the scenes and off the record.  Obama administration officials say they do exactly the same thing.

But in public, Obama and Clinton, anxious to distance themselves from Bush and Rice, backed off even further. They accepted Egypt's rigged elections last November without much comment. More to the point, a year ago—possibly at Mubarak's request—the administration cut funding for democracy promotion in Egypt. Just to be clear: That was money that would have been aimed at promoting "good governance, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, transparency and a free press, strong political parties, protection for the rights of minorities," which Clinton so decisively advocated on Saturday.

As a practical matter, greater funding for democracy promotion in 2010 wouldn't have had much impact on the demonstrations of 2011: America doesn't have that kind of influence and never did. But if powerful Americans had cultivated the leaders of Egypt's secular opposition—and they do exist—they would at least have more people to talk to right now. In Munich, Clinton declared that "we are committed to supporting strong civil societies, the activists, organizations, congregations, intellectuals, reporters who work through peaceful means to fight corruption and keep governments honest." Had we actually maintained that commitment over many years, perhaps we might even have helped enrich "the soil in which democracy grows," as the secretary of state put it—maybe, possibly, increasing the chances of a happy ending for Egypt in the coming months.

By "democracy promotion," or "civil society construction," I do not mean that we should have funded violent opponents of the Egyptian state or paid anyone to bring down Mubarak. But it is possible, in fact, to maintain relations with an authoritarian government while simultaneously helping to nurture its civil society through education, radio, and media: We did that in the Soviet Union and Central Europe for decades.

We should follow the same course in the Arab world, not because it's morally right but because it's pragmatic. Come the revolution, it might even pay off.

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