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In Volatile Mideast, U.S. Finds a Use For Old Autocrats

As Elections Boost Islamists, Democracy Push Falters In Egypt, Saudi Arabia Red Carpet for Mubarak Heir

Last summer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered an emotional speech in Egypt now regarded as a high-water mark of the Bush administration's push for democracy in the Middle East.

"There are those who say that democracy leads to chaos or conflict or terror," she told a packed house at Cairo's American University in June 2005. "In fact, the opposite is true: Freedom and democracy are the only ideas powerful enough to overcome hatred and division and violence."

Today, the question confronting Ms. Rice is this: How much hatred, division and violence can the region bear en route to this promised new era?

With radicalism on the rise and battles flaring from Beirut to Baghdad to Gaza, the Bush administration's quest for democracy in the Middle East is literally under fire. So while Ms. Rice portrays the fighting in Lebanon as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," the administration is also showing new eagerness to maintain pillars of the old Middle East -- particularly America's steadiest allies in the region, the autocracies of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Last month, Ms. Rice delayed her departure to the Middle East to meet with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, who received an unusual Sunday audience with President Bush. Ms. Rice went on to praise Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia repeatedly during her trip. Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt for 25 years, is back in Washington's good graces, after being chastised last year for his country's lackluster embrace of democratic change. Mr. Mubarak's son and heir-apparent was recently hosted by the administration, which also tamped down a congressional attempt to cut funding to the country.

"There's been a very loud sigh of relief within the White House...that there are still some stable, highly centralized countries in the region to turn to," says Aaron Miller, a veteran Middle East adviser to four administrations -- including the current one. He now works at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., research institution.

It was Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, designed to cripple the Hezbollah militant group, which most recently underscored America's need for friends in the region. At the fighting's onset, the Bush administration relied heavily on support from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whose governments were quick to criticize Hezbollah's attacks on Israel. During the past week, however, these three countries have become significantly more critical as the unrest worsens.

The violence in Lebanon also highlighted what critics say are contradictions in the Bush democracy quest. For one, the administration now has to rely on autocratic leaders as it pursues its goal of ridding the region of autocratic leaders. Moreover, the region's worst unrest is in the three places Washington has pushed hardest for democratic change: Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Recent elections in all three places have led to a strengthening of strongly Islamic parties, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, which picked up 14 seats in the 128-seat Lebanese parliament, and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, which swept January elections and now controls the government. The results also enhanced the influence in all three places of Iran's hard-line Shiite leadership, much to the alarm of its rivals in the Sunni capitals of Cairo, Amman and Riyadh.

Robert Malley, a former Middle East adviser to President Clinton, says only two countries -- for very different reasons -- have openly pushed to upset the region's status quo in recent years: the U.S. and Iran. "And right now, it's pretty clear that Iran is winning," he says.

The Bush administration dismisses the idea that its push for democratic change has fueled the current turmoil. "I hear this amazing kind of editorial thought that says all of a sudden Hezbollah has become violent because we're promoting democracy," Mr. Bush said soon after fighting broke out in Lebanon, dismissing suggestions the region wasn't ready for full political freedoms.

In remarks to reporters yesterday, President Bush said his Mideast policy is a clear break from that of his predecessors -- and the only salvation for a troubled region. "As far as this administration is concerned, we clearly see the problem and we're going to continue to work to advance stable, free countries," he said while on vacation in Crawford, Texas. "Admittedly, this is hard work because it flies in the face of previous policy, which basically says stability is more important than form of government. And as a result of that policy, anger and resentment bubbled forth with an attack, with a series of attacks, the most dramatic of which was on September the 11th."

The president's top diplomat says critics need to take the long view. The current chaos, Ms. Rice argues, could be a necessary stage for creating long-term stability. "I'm a student of history, so perhaps I have a little bit more patience with enormous change in the international system," Ms. Rice told reporters recently. "It's a big shifting of tectonic plates, and I don't expect it to happen in a few days or even in a year."

Early in the democracy project, the administration had cause for encouragement despite an array of skeptics. Palestinians picked a moderate, Mahmoud Abbas, as their president in January 2005. Iraqis risked attacks to line up to vote in two nationwide elections, first in January 2005 and then last December. And when Syria pulled troops out of Lebanon, after years of interfering in its domestic politics, the country held its first free election in decades.

It also became clear that elections didn't immediately enhance U.S. interests or create stability. That is partly because Islamic groups offered by far the most organized and effective opposition to the old leaderships. The biggest shock came with Hamas's victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The Bush administration, after pressuring Israel to allow Hamas to compete, was stunned by the results.

After that, the White House and senior officials in the State Department began to take a far more guarded stance on the usefulness of speedy elections. Nowhere is this new cautiousness more apparent, or more consequential, than in Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally and peacemaker in the region. It is also a driving force in Arab political and cultural life.

BIRTH PANGS
 
Recent Mideast elections have strengthened various Islamist groups:
Hezbollah: Invited to join Lebanese governing coalition; controls two ministries
Hamas: Won control of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government in West Bank and Gaza
United Iraqi Alliance: Pro-Iran group took more than 40% of seats in parliament; controls key ministries such as finance and oil
Muslim Brotherhood: Candidates it backed won a fifth of seats in the Egyptian parliament

In 2004, the Mubarak government came under U.S. pressure for the first time to open up its political system. Early the next year, Mr. Mubarak announced he would allow the country's first truly competitive elections.

The decision energized his opposition. Groups stepped up their activities, and hopeful demonstrations broke out on the streets of Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group officially banned from political activities, sponsored an unusually large number of independent candidates for parliament. A little-known group called Kefaya -- or "Enough" -- began mounting demonstrations several times a week.

U.S. support for democratic change seemed steadfast. Ms. Rice, in an unusual snub, called off a March trip to Cairo after the government arrested a leading opposition figure and potential presidential candidate, Ayman Nour. The administration then signed off on the first-ever U.S. grants given directly to Egyptian pro-democracy groups. Two months later Ms. Rice gave her speech in Cairo.

But by the summer, U.S. uneasiness over the popular unrest in Egypt began to grow. The Egyptians were spooked, too. Government security forces beat protesters and clamped down on activists and journalists. A renewed spate of terrorist bombings gave Mr. Mubarak more cause for his security crackdown.

Amid restrictions on who could run and how candidates could campaign, Mr. Mubarak secured a fifth term as president with relative ease. But the parliamentary election -- conducted in three rounds in September, November and December -- was plagued with problems. Riot police barricaded some voting stations, forcibly preventing voters from entering. Human-rights groups and the Egyptian judiciary alleged that ballot-rigging was rife.

Violence intensified approaching the second round of elections in November. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidates won 88 seats in parliament, up from 17 in the 2000 election, forming the largest single bloc of opposition seats in modern Egyptian history. Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party took 230 seats of 454. While the ruling party retained its majority, for many the elections indicated the pro-Islamist direction Egypt might turn if left to its own devices.

The Hamas victory two months later caused the White House to ratchet back even further its criticism of the Mubarak government, especially its jailing and beating of protesters.

When Ms. Rice visited Cairo in February she sat down for nearly two hours with Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, who was the point man in a failed bid to get Hamas to modify its stance toward Israel. In remarks later that day Ms. Rice said Egypt had experienced "disappointments and setbacks" in its democracy quest but noted that the U.S. "can't judge Egypt. We can't tell Egypt what its course can or should be."

Asked about Egypt's political course in March, Mr. Bush echoed these sentiments. "I support an openness in the political process," he said. "I recognize that not everybody is going to embrace this concept of democracy and freedom as firmly as I'd like them to. But all of us have got to continue to advance progress."

Egypt's government-controlled parliament voted in April to extend some 25-year-old emergency laws that restrict civil liberties, a move long opposed by the U.S. The State Department was mild in its criticism and called the move "a disappointment."

Shortly after, Egyptians took part in another round of demonstrations to lobby for a more independent Egyptian judiciary. The accompanying violence peaked on May 18, when riot police and security men in plain clothes beat and kicked protesters with truncheons in central Cairo.

In the middle of the riots, the Bush administration secretly welcomed to the White House Mr. Mubarak's son and presumptive successor, Gamal. He is a controversial figure in Egypt because many believe he is being groomed to continue a Mubarak dynasty. During his brief stopover, many top administration officials managed to drop by for a visit, including President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Ms. Rice.

U.S. officials say that the visit has been misinterpreted. The administration took it as a chance to pass along U.S. concerns over recent government actions in Egypt, they say, and it was not intended as a tacit endorsement.

Later in May, some in Congress moved to cut aid to Egypt to register concerns over the country's backsliding on democratic reforms. As a sign of displeasure, lawmakers pushed to cut $200 million from the $1.75 billion in military and economic aid the U.S. will give to Egypt next year. The administration successfully opposed that move, arguing it would be counterproductive to alienate the Egyptian government at such a sensitive time.

"Our strategic partnership with Egypt is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in this region," the administration's top Middle East diplomat, David Welch, told a House panel recently in defending the spending. Mr. Welch, who was ambassador to Egypt until last year, ticked off a long list of key areas where the U.S. relies on Egyptian cooperation, from counterterrorism to a drive to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Many observers in Cairo note that the U.S.'s democracy push, and the resulting rise of Islamist fervor, has given the Egyptian government a ready-made reason to backtrack on its promises. "It's the same thing again. We take steps forward and then leaps back," says Ibrahim Hassan, an Egyptian lawyer who was involved in the demonstrations demanding more autonomy for the judiciary. "This time it's the perfect excuse -- the U.S. would never stand to allow the Brotherhood to take over Egypt."

Hisham Kassem, the founder of Al-Masry El-Youm, an opposition newspaper, and a prominent critic of the regime, sees the easing of U.S. pressure in Egypt as basic realism. "The U.S. can't afford a collapse of the regime," says Mr. Kassem. "They can lobby and use certain leverage, but to bring down the regime is not an option."

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