Date: Mon Jun 08 2009 - 22:23:49 EDT
How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East
Stephen Zunes | June 8, 2009
Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco
President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim world marked a
welcome departure from the Bush administration's confrontational approach.
Yet many Arabs and Muslims have expressed frustration that he failed to use
this opportunity to call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with
whom he had visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and
open up their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems.
Imagine the positive reaction Obama would have received throughout the Arab
and Islamic world if, instead of simply expressing eloquent but vague words
in support of freedom and democracy, he had said something like this:
"Let's fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the
Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing
dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their
economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects,
without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells."
Could he have said such a thing?
Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state
senator, he gave a speech at a major anti-war rally in Chicago on October
Egypt is the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, while Saudi
Arabia is the number-one buyer of U.S. arms. Obama would have enormous
leverage, should he choose to wield it, in pressing these two regimes to
end oppression of their own people, suppression of dissent, toleration of
corruption and inequality, and mismanagement of their economies. Yet he was
apparently unwilling to take advantage of his highly publicized visits with
the leaders of these two countries to break with his predecessors' coddling
of these tyrannical regimes.
To his credit, while in Egypt Obama did engage in a few symbolic efforts to
demonstrate a concern for human rights. He didn't praise his Egyptian host,
the dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak, from the podium, as is generally
customary on such occasions. Nor did he physically embrace Mubarak or Saudi
King Abdullah or otherwise offer visual displays of affection, as is
typical during such visits to leaders in that region. The Obama
administration invited some leading critics of the regime, including both
secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his University of Cairo
speech. However, Kefaya, Egypt's leading grassroots pro-democracy group,
boycotted the speech. It demanded that Obama show his commitment to
democracy in deeds, not words.
Since his address was directed to the Muslim world as a whole, and not just
to Egypt, it may not have been appropriate in that particular speech to
specify particular human rights abuses in that country or explicitly call
on Mubarak to release political prisoners or allow for free elections.
However, it appears that there was no clear effort by Obama, at any point
during his Middle East trip, to pressure the Egyptian dictator or his Saudi
counterpart to end the repression in their countries.
Despite taking a conciliatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in recent
years, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah reigns over a brutal and misogynist
theocracy. The royal family, with the consultation of reactionary Wahhabi
religious scholars, rules by degree. There's no constitution and no
elections (save for one male-only poll for some powerless local advisory
councils in 2005.) No public non-Islamic religious observance is allowed.
Political prisoners are routinely tortured and the execution rate (through
beheading) is the second-highest in the world. The country is routinely
ranked as one of the most repressive on the planet. During his visit to the
kingdom last week, however, Obama refused to utter a word of public
criticism about the family dictatorship, but did praise the king for "his
wisdom and his graciousness."
Ignoring Egyptian Repression
As with Saudi Arabia, the repressive nature of Egypt's Mubarak dictatorship
has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
Freedom House, and other groups. This is a country where a simple gathering
of five or more people without a permit is illegal. Peaceful pro-democracy
protesters are routinely beaten and jailed. Martial law has been in effect
for more than 28 years. Independent observers are banned from monitoring
the country's routinely rigged elections, from which the largest opposition
party is banned from participating and other opposition parties are
severely restricted in producing publications and other activities.
It's well documented that the Egyptian government engages in a pattern of
gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the
regime, including massive detentions without due process, torture on an
administrative basis, and extra-judicial killings. Targets of government
repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal
democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, students, trade
unionists, Coptic Christians, and human rights activists.
It's therefore quite disappointing that, even though the human rights
situation in Egypt has actually worsened since his 2002 speech in which he
advocated fighting to end repression in that country, Obama now refuses to
even acknowledge that country's authoritarianism. In an interview with the
BBC just prior to his departure to the Middle East, Justin Webb asked him
directly, "Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?"
Obama's reply was "No," insisting that "I tend not to use labels for
folks." Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak's authoritarianism on the
grounds that "I haven't met him," as if the question was in regard to the
Egyptian dictator's personality rather than his well-documented intolerance
In further justifying his refusal to acknowledge the authoritarian nature
of the Egyptian government, Obama referred to Mubarak — whom he dismissed
as a "so-called" ally back in 2002 — as "a stalwart ally, in many
respects, to the United States." He praised Egypt's despotic president for
having "sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do
in that region," though — given that no Arab government has waged war
with Israel for over 35 years — this is hardly so unique an
accomplishment as to justify shying away from legitimate criticism of the
Egyptian leader's dictatorial rule.
Obama went on to insist that "I think he has been a force for stability.
And good in the region." Such an assessment is in marked contrast to his
remarks from less than seven years ago, where he publicly acknowledged that
Mubarak's corrupt and autocratic rule was creating conditions where
Egyptian youth "grow up without education, without prospects, without hope,
the ready recruits of terrorist cells." Since coming to Washington, Obama
has surely read the intelligence reports that note many young Egyptians
have been radicalized in reaction to Mubarak's corrupt and autocratic rule,
and some have gone on to play key roles in al-Qaeda and other terrorist
groups that have dangerously destabilized the region.
When the BBC's Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue of the
"thousands of political prisoners in Egypt," he answered only in terms of
the United States being a better role model, such as closing the prison at
Guatánamo Bay, and the importance of the United States not trying to
impose its human rights values on other countries. While these are
certainly valid points, they offer little hope for the thousands of regime
opponents now languishing in Egyptian prisons. Obama said nothing about the
possibility of linking even part of the more than $1.5 billion in annual
U.S. aid to the Mubarak regime on providing freedom for these prisoners of
The most negative assessment Obama could muster for Mubarak's dictatorial
regime in the interview was, "Obviously, there have been criticisms of the
manner in which politics operates in Egypt." Given that there have also
been criticisms of the manner in which politics is conducted in every
country of the world, including the United States, this can hardly account
for a public display of disapproval. Even the Washington-based Freedom
House ranks Egypt in the bottom quintile of the world's countries in terms
of political rights and civil liberties. Webb's question was not about
whether there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates
in Egypt. The question was whether Mubarak was an authoritarian leader.
Even if Obama did not feel comfortable labeling the Egyptian president
himself as an authoritarian, he should have at least acknowledged that
Mubarak leads an authoritarian government.
The Return of Realpolitik
In his recent speech, Obama claimed to have "an unyielding belief that all
people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a
say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal
administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal
from the people; the freedom to live as you choose." Emphasizing that such
concepts are not just American ideas but basic universal human rights, he
pledged that the United States "will support them everywhere."
Yet few on the proverbial Arab Main Street are going to believe the United
States actually supports human rights until such noble rhetoric is matched
by action, specifically an end to the arming and funding of repressive
governments in the Middle East. As Shirin Sadeghi said, "Obama's inevitable
message to the Muslim world" is that "the United States will look the other
way at your governments' repressive policies because a working relationship
with them is more important than a consideration of the peoples' rights."
Similarly, while Israel is an exemplary democracy for its Jewish citizens,
that country's U.S.-supplied armed forces have engaged in massive
violations of international humanitarian law against Arab and Muslim
peoples, with bipartisan support from Washington.
It appears, then, that in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology
of his predecessor, Obama is largely falling back onto the realpolitik of
previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes
through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Obama's
understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down approaches to
democratization through "regime change" is no excuse for arming these
regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate
popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization (and then, in
turn, justify the large-scale unconditional support for Israel because it's
"the sole democracy in the Middle East").
Because this is the aspect of U.S. foreign policy most Arabs and Muslims
experience firsthand, support for these corrupt and despotic regimes is
arguably the single biggest motivation for the young disenfranchised men
that join the ranks of radical Islamists against the United States, even
more so than U.S. support for Israel or the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Continued support for the dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and
other countries, therefore, ultimately places Americans at risk.
Largely as a result of the longstanding bipartisan U.S. effort to prop up
the Mubarak dictatorship, the percentage of Egyptians who look favorably
upon the United States in recent years has plunged into the single digits,
which is a significantly lower percentage than even Iranians. With more
than 80 million people, Egypt is by far the world's largest Arab country
and remains the center of Arab and Islamic culture, media, and scholarship.
It's therefore not a country whose people the Obama administration should
risk alienating. Like the series of administrations from Eisenhower to
Carter, which insisted on supporting the despotic Shah of Iran, Obama's
insistence on continuing to arm and support the Mubarak regime could be
sowing the seeds of yet another disastrous anti-American reaction.
Another problem with Obama's apparent willingness to continue America's
strategic and economic support for these dictatorships is that it provides
the neocons and other right-wing critics an opportunity to appear to seize
the moral high ground. Despite the fact that U.S. military and economic
support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other repressive regimes in the
greater Middle East actually increased under the Bush administration,
Obama's failure to speak out more forcefully for greater freedom and
democracy in the region is now becoming a Republican line of attack. Just
because Bush and his supporters disingenuously used "democracy promotion"
as a rationalization for its invasion of Iraq and other reckless policies,
however, it doesn't therefore follow that supporting democracy is a bad
Almost none of the dozens of successful transitions to democracy in recent
decades have come from foreign intervention. The vast majority have come
from democratic civil society organizations engaging in strategic
nonviolent action from within. While the United States cannot instigate
such "people power" movements, at least we can stop providing autocratic
regimes with the means to suppress them. And there's no better place to
start than the Middle East.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst, is a professor of
politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies as the University of San