A tale of two countries: Egypt, America, and the strangling of democracy

Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with the immortal phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” And so it remains today. Nothing in the intervening century and a half, from the publication of Dickens’ Tale to the 2011 wave of protests rocking the Arab world, has changed the immutable veracity of that simple paradox.

Instead of two cities, however, I’m thinking of two countries. Let’s start with a simple thought experiment. One month ago, imagine if someone had predicted that, in Tunisia and Egypt, massive protest movements would emerge ex nihilo to shatter the status quo; that these movements would, furthermore, contain no traceable elements of radicalism or Islamism in any form; that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the West has feared for so long, would at least initially linger in the shadows and allow the secular and leaderless crowds to lead the way; and that, finally, the demands of the protesters would remain eminently reasonable and, most significantly, democratic. Such a prognosticator would have been mocked relentlessly.

As it turns out, this has all taken place over the course of the last several weeks. And the American response? To hesitate, to triangulate, to hedge its bets according to the ever-shifting political winds, and — finally and most heartlessly — to work furiously behind the scenes to orchestrate a return to the pre-January 25 status quo while halfheartedly trumpeting the Egyptian revolution in the public sphere.

With recent reports confirming the U.S.’s backing of Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman as the leader of choice to replace Hosni Mubarak, the cycle of hypocrisy has been completed. Our greatest national fantasy for the Arab world has materialized in miraculous form, and the United States, as the self-crowned “last remaining superpower,” has summoned all its collective international influence to strangle the region’s nascent democratization.

The facially bizarre American reaction to the Egyptian quest for self-autonomy leaves one with many questions. It is not hard to imagine why, on a very short-term horizon and in the service of very short-term interests, the replacement of Mubarak with a political clone may be beneficial for the White House. There is, of course, a peace treaty with Israel on the line, and a substantial threat that a popular uprising of any kind may jeopardize America’s relations with its primary Arab ally.

To this end, Suleiman, whom The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer described as “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances,” would indeed fit the description of an ideal candidate. Later in the same article, Mayer notes, “Technically, U.S. law required the C.I.A. to seek ‘assurances’ from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the intelligence service, such assurances were considered close to worthless.” So Suleiman (a.k.a. Mubarak 2.0) could, under the auspices of the United States and its $1.5 billion of annual strings-attached foreign aid, slide quite comfortably into his designated role as American puppet. Even as he trumpets his first meeting with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as the initial step in major reform, journalists, human rights workers, and Egyptian citizens continue to be harassed, assaulted, arrested, and beaten. If this is democratization, then what is tyranny?

There is, however, a pesky problem with the 2011 version of American dark magic. And that would be the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have courageously packed Tahrir Square day after day, shouting and chanting and praying and sometimes dying for the chance to experience for themselves the curious social dysfunction we call democracy. This isn’t, by the way, the first time this has happened in recent memory — not the first time in the Arab world, and not even the first time in Egypt. In 2005, after then-President George W. Bush pressured Mubarak for free elections, the latter relented to a point. Nearly ninety members of the Muslim Brotherhood won seats in parliament, and suddenly (and predictably) the ensuing silence from the American side was palpable. In occupied Palestine in 2006, as well, when Hamas won soundly in that year’s elections, the United States’ endless calls for a democratic government ceased in favor of branding the victor a terrorist organization.

The message in both cases was clear: American interest in democratization was contingent upon what the final product looked like. More specifically (in most cases), it depended upon how the changes affected Israel. And yet this is neither Israel’s moment, nor America’s. The colonials and minutemen of 1776 never asked France or Spain for their opinions on American self-determination, and neither did Israel ask the countries of Europe or America for theirs in 1948.

While Egyptians fight tirelessly for what, in a previous world without global superpowers, was once a far simpler goal, the United States is seen as impeding it. Frank Wisner, the envoy whom Obama sent to negotiate with Mubarak — ostensibly to persuade him to resign — has been revealed as an employee of Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm that, according to The Independent, “openly boasts that it advises ‘the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government’s behalf in Europe and the US’.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that after meeting Mubarak, Wisner had the following to say regarding the Egyptian transition: “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical: it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” This not only humiliated the State Department, which quickly sought to define Wisner’s comments as personal opinion, but even worse, in fact does reflect perfectly the real objective belying the Obama administration’s pandering to the hordes of protesters: the status quo must continue.

Whatever the reasons — America’s unholy alliance with Israel, Egypt’s rendition-heavy role in the “war on terror,” or something else entirely — Obama’s people have badly miscalculated the cost-benefit analysis. The president has surrounded himself with Clinton-era aides, and they in turn are dispensing Clinton-era strategy. This is problematic in the world of today; the United States is not the impartial friend of the Arab world that it could reasonably claim to be back in long-distant 2000.

Bush — the recent subject of some very misguided right-wing cheer-leading following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — squandered whatever goodwill we attained following September 11 with a series of atrocious decisions that will continue to reverberate in the Arab world and beyond for years to come. In his mind, terrorism was an enemy to be fought with weapons. On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama led us to believe terror was best defeated by ideas instead. But it turns out his idea was so terribly pedestrian that it pales in comparison even to Bush’s naive idealism. Bush 43 genuinely believed America’s calling was to spread democracy, like peanut butter, all over the globe; Obama, it is now clear, doesn’t particularly care for democratic aspirations to begin with. Bush’s legacy in foreign policy will forever be the wreckage of Iraq. Obama’s is harder to discern, as the maintenance of an Egyptian dictatorship at all costs nevertheless fails to shock the populace in the same way that thousands of American casualties always will.

The White House’s mistake is one of over-complexity. To use programming terminology, Obama & Co. have taken “if-then-else” formulations well beyond their reasonable limit. If Mubarak leaves, then free elections will ensue. If that happens, the Muslim Brotherhood may win elective office. And if the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, then an entire country could become radicalized and virulently anti-American (and anti-Israeli). But this is underselling the Egyptian populace. And regardless of their collective political savvy, the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of citizens who took to the streets deserve a shot at self-governance, an objective so perfectly aligned with the American founding narrative that it is simply shocking to see how easily we’ve abandoned it.

Even if we Americans fail to expand our political imaginations beyond the ubiquitous bottom-line equation to determine the probability of increased terrorism following every world event, it would nevertheless behoove all of us to recognize that it is not the faux-stability of dictatorships that prevents our planes from being flown into buildings. Indeed, it is the poverty, disillusionment, and lack of autonomy in such societies that causes radicalism to flourish. And if such desperate conditions are combined with an American propaganda machine that shouts “democracy” at every available moment while our elites pull strings in secret to thwart the will of ordinary citizens, terrorism can only grow more common.

It is time to learn our lessons from history and embrace democratic movements — neither forcing them from the outside, as Bush attempted, or strangling them from the inside, as Obama is now trying. American support of democracy that bespeaks both our public and our private aspirations is the best, and only reasonable, foreign policy. This time, let’s give honesty a try.

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