“America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” With these soaring words in the 2005 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush swore to overturn the long-standing US policy of backing friendly dictators in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
At the May 20-22 World Economic Forum in Jordan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney reiterated this “transformational vision” to the assembled Arab political and business leaders. For 60 years, said the vice president’s daughter, Washington had mistakenly backed the Arab status quo in exchange for stability—but no longer.
Now the Bush administration’s big talk about democracy in the Arab world has flunked a major test.
In Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a long-time US ally, a vibrant and creative democratic movement called Kifaya, or Enough, burst onto the scene in December 2004. The Kifaya activists, who span the political spectrum from Islamists to liberals to socialists, took to the streets to demand that President Husni Mubarak step down. On four occasions, the regime has presented Egyptians with a yes-or-no referendum on continuation of Mubarak’s presidency, but never allowed anyone else to run. In January, Mubarak seemed poised to pull the same trick to extend his 24-year rule.
But throughout the winter and spring, the forces of dissent gathered momentum. On February 26, Mubarak appeared to relent, pledging to adjust the Egyptian constitution to provide for a multi-candidate presidential election rather than simply another rubber-stamping. But when it came time to approve the amendment, the Egyptian parliament, which is dominated by Mubarak’s ruling party, came up with a set of rules that all but lock in the status quo. Only parties recognized by the government can field a candidate, meaning that the powerful but outlawed Muslim Brotherhood cannot compete, and independent hopefuls are required to collect 300 signatures from members of local councils also controlled by regime loyalists.
One would expect the Bush administration to pounce on this transparent rigging of the system. The Kifaya movement certainly did. On the day of the parliamentary vote, Kifaya demonstrators labeled the measure “theatrics” and the movement’s leaders published a statement accusing the ruling party of “aborting people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.” A week beforehand, Bush had seemed to agree, saying that the Egyptian election should proceed “with rules that allow for a real campaign.”
But now the US has backtracked. When the Egyptian prime minister came to Washington, Bush did not publicly dress him down. First Lady Laura Bush even called the democracy-limiting measure “a very wise and bold step” as she visited the Pyramids during her recent Middle East tour. “You know that each step is a small step, that you can’t be quick.”
Some say the Bush administration’s Palestine and Iraq policies have so soured Arab public opinion on the US that Washington would harm the prospects of Arab pro-democracy movements by supporting them openly. That may be true. But the Bush administration did something else entirely with its rhetorical reversal regarding Egypt. It came out in favor of the authoritarian regime as it works to fend off popular demands for change. Not surprisingly, the regime seized the opportunity to squeeze its opponents. On May 25, during a popular referendum on the constitutional amendment, several Egyptian and Western journalists witnessed regime-bought goons beat and molest Kifaya protesters and even rip the clothes off at least two female activists. Police stood idly by.
What was the “transformational” Bush administration’s response to this brazen crackdown? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demurred: “Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.”
Many Arabs regard Egypt as the bellwether indicating the prevailing political winds. By turning its back as the Egyptian regime squelches a democracy movement, the Bush administration is giving de facto license to other regimes to follow suit. When it comes to US allies, it would seem, Bush’s big talk about democracy is nothing but talk.