Past experiences show that America is willing to countenance democracy only when it produces outcomes favourable to its interests.
The current protests in Egypt have placed the United States in a big dilemma. America is a leading advocate of democracy around the world. Yet often times, the pursuit of its national objectives conflicts with the democratic aspirations of people in the countries where it has powerful geostrategic interests. Sometimes, a genuine democratic process threatens to produce an undemocratic outcome – like during the Cold War when elections threatened to bring communists into power; or today when “Islamic extremist” movements threaten to win elections and recreate a “medieval theocracy”.
How should America respond to such developments? In Algeria, when the Front for Islamic Salvation won the elections in 1990, the US supported a military coup to forestall “Islamic extremists” coming to power. In 2006, the US rejected the popular will of the Palestinian people when Hamas, categorised as a terrorist organisation, won elections in the occupied territories. This means that America is willing to countenance democracy only when it produces outcomes favourable to its interests.
This is the major flaw and contradiction of US foreign policy, most especially in the Middle East. Democracy demands a willingness to accept outcomes even when they go against your interests. Instead, America seems to demand from the Middle East that a democratic process should and MUST guarantee an outcome that America wants, not necessarily what the voters want. When this is not possible, the US will support and prop up an autocrat.
As the people of Egypt demand the resignation of President Hosin Mubarak, the US is being forced to make a hard choice. On the face of it, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been saying they support the aspirations of the people of Egypt for political reform. Yet they also say that Egypt/Mubarak is an ally. Should America abandon him in favour of a democratic process with uncertain outcomes? Most likely, real politic will triumph over ideals.
America fears a power vacuum if protesters force Mubarak and his security infrastructure out of power. The group with capacity to fill this vacuum is the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not because they constitute a majority of the Egyptian population (estimates place their support at about 15%), but because they are the best organised. Even if they do not capture power directly, they will be a powerful influence in any government of national unity that succeeds Mubarak.
Given these hard realities, America will publicly pronounce its faith in democracy in Egypt but quietly reassure Mubarak that it will not undermine him. With such a green light, Mubarak will play many tricks to remain in power while conceding as little democratic space as possible. America wants reform without destabilising the status quo. The best America can countenance in Egypt therefore are small, slow incremental changes in the system.
A revolutionary reordering of any country’s politics can be dangerous except if it happens in the aftermath of a devastating civil conflict that produces a decisive victory by a side with a reformist orientation. Attempts at radical reform always tend towards despotism. This is because reform threatens powerful and entrenched interests. They can employ their money, control over the media and international connections to resist radical reforms that seek to dispossess them. The reformer is thus forced to use extraordinary force and unconstitutional means to get his way. This is the experience of Hugo Chaves in Venezuela and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
Egypt and Tunisia do not need the total destruction of the old order but rather its reform through measured steps towards greater freedom. This means that those in favour of reform recognise that democracy is a process not an event. A country cannot be governed on the whims of hoards of unruly youths shouting slogans on the streets. Their energy has to be guided towards purposeful political action lest it degenerates into mob rule. In this regard, the US position on Egypt is reasonable.
However, because of existing suspicions among many Egyptians about America’s intentions, few would accept this reasonable approach to democratisation. This is because where America has a vested interest in regime change, like in Iran, it tends to support an anarchical approach to democratisation without regard to the complexity of the local context. In some cases, like in Iraq, America has promoted democratisation at gunpoint.
Secondly, popular feelings in Egypt are hostile to Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian lands. Mubarak’s authoritarian regime has been keeping a lead on this boiling pot, all to the benefit of America. It is very likely that a democratic government that responds to the popular will of the Egyptian people would give expression to these feelings. That is what America does not want, cannot likely afford.
Therefore, America’s desires and interests go against the demands of many Egyptians who want to see quick and radical change and who want to see a hostile foreign policy stance towards Israel. Many Egyptians believe that without US support, Mubarak cannot retain his job. If he survives it is very likely they will blame it on America. Consequently, many frustrated youths will become easy prey to propaganda that tells them that America is against their aspirations because it wants to keep Muslims from being free and Israel in occupation of Arab/Muslim lands.
For America to retain its credibility and invest in a future democratic Egypt, it must lead and be seen to lead the international pressure on Mubarak to resign. For then, the US will have greater credibility and clout to influence the character of the emergent government of national unity. This will facilitate the evolution of a government that is favourable to the US even though not as much of a “yes” government as Mubarak’s has been.
America’s relations with Mubarak have been good because it could rely on his autocratic powers for quick decisions. If democracy wins, America will need to learn how to work with a democratic Egypt – a more complicated job because democracy involves negotiations with so many groups with conflicting interests, aspirations and agendas. Success comes as a result of political compromise and bargaining, not through dictations from one man. Can America and Obama stand to this test?