The Conversation

Don't Blame 'Democracy Agenda' for Egypt

It is becoming fashionable, in conservative circles, to blame a "democracy agenda," supposedly embraced by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, for the ongoing instability in Egypt. For some, blaming that agenda is a matter of genuine belief in non-intervention. For others, it is a convenient way to try to move beyond Bush's enduring shadow. Regardless, the "democracy agenda" is not to blame in Egypt.

Recall that in both 2011 and 2013, the first instinct of the Obama administration was not to side with the anti-government protestors in Egypt, but with the regime in power. Obama reduced funding for pro-democracy groups in Egypt, and sided with Hosni Mubarak in the first days of the Arab Spring. Likewise, his first response to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests was to encourage demonstrators to stay home.

In both cases, thanks to Obama, the U.S. was seen to be on the side of the autocrat (or would-be autocrat) in power, not on the side of democracy. Obama gave Mubarak the final push, but only long after it was clear that the U.S. had lost the initiative and lost legitimacy among Egypt's new leaders. Likewise in Syria, where the Obama administration only joined the rebel cause once it had been largely taken over by jihadists.

The Bush administration was more committed to the cause of democracy in the Middle East because it took seriously the idea that democratic countries were less likely to go to war or to incubate terrorists. It did promote democracy throughout the region, though--outside Iraq--rather weakly. And both Bush and Obama have protected the Saudi regime and shored up the power of Sunni autocrats around the Arabian peninsula.

Bush's major mistake was to back Palestinian elections when the parties still maintained armed militias that were actively targeting Israelis, and each other. The U.S. failed to learn from global precedents that freedom cannot take root in conflict societies before the combatants suspend the "armed struggle." (Obama opposed those elections, though less out of opposition to Hamas than opposition to the entire Bush policy agenda.)

It is fair to say that enthusiasm for democracy is premature, at least, in societies that have weak traditions of tolerance, self-government, or liberty. As Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote this week: "the lesson from Egypt is that democracy may be a blessing for people capable of self-government, but it's a curse for those who are not." That does not, however, mean the U.S. should turn its back on the democratic cause.

There is always an inherent instability in supporting autocrats, for two reasons: first, the regime will often cultivate a hatred of the U.S. anyway, because it needs an external enemy to justify its repression of its own citizens; and second, those among the people who yearn for freedom will resent the U.S. for its role in their repression. The "stability" earned by supporting to friendly dictators is, at best, a partial, temporary, one.

That does not mean that the U.S. should undermine friendly autocratic regimes. Yet we should encourage those regimes to become more liberal (in the classical sense), starting with basic human rights and economic affairs, and later moving to political systems and values. We should cultivate relationships with civil society groups and encourage the development of free media. We should embrace positive change when it comes.


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