Joshua Muravchik has a pointed critique of the Bush Administration’s lackluster efforts in promoting democratization in the Arab world, specifically in Egypt:
Last year U.S. pressure impelled Mubarak to hold Egypt’s first presidential election. U.S. pressure also led to a relaxation of constraints on freedom of speech, press and assembly that began to change the quality of public life in Egypt. Given this momentum, it was expected that Mubarak, once reelected, would allow further liberalization. Instead, 2006 has brought a wave of repression and brutality that goes beyond the jailing of Nour. The regime’s goons have bloodied and arrested peaceful protesters doing nothing more than expressing solidarity with the dignified protests of Egypt’s judges. Spurred by the persecution of its leaders for exposing election irregularities, the extraordinary judges’ movement has sprung to the forefront of agitation for reform.
In response to these abuses, U.S. press spokesmen have issued formulaic criticisms, and Nour’s conviction on patently bogus charges led Washington to postpone trade talks. But the mild tone of U.S. protests, the low level at which most have been delivered and the admixture of warm gestures toward the regime — such as the meetings Vice President Cheney and other top officials held with Mubarak’s son and hoped-for heir, Gamal, last month — have combined to create the impression that the Bush administration has begun to pull its punches on Middle East democracy.
The Bush Administration’s shameful silence on the Mubarak regime’s autocracy hurts the cause of democratization, a cause which is vital to the future security of this country. The Islamist movement exploits the resentment bred by autocracies such as the Mubarak regime – to a poor or middle class Egyptian who can only talk freely in a mosque, the Muslim Brotherhood’s call of “Islam is the solution” has a strong appeal. The only way to undercut the power of Islamist groups in Egypt is to provide a secular civil society that can appeal to the average Egyptian – something which the Mubarak regime regards as a threat and viciously suppresses.
The fact that Egypt is still one of our largest beneficiaries in terms of foreign aid despite the Mubarak’s regime increasing anti-democratic action is shameful. Unless we strongly and publcly speak out against autocracy, our promotion of democracy in places like Iraq will suffer. We can’t promote liberty at the same time we provide others with the tools to stifle it. The President should demand that the Mubarak regime release Mr. Nour, and the State Department should provide whatever funding is necessary to see to it that groups in Egypt that promote secular civil society do not want. If the Egyptian government has problems with this approach, then they can find alternate sources of funding.
The Bush Administration is clearly worried that if the Mubarak regime is toppled, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power. Yet the power of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in their opposition to the Mubarak regime – if they had to actually govern it seems likely that the sheen would be off in short order. Ultimately by allowing the Mubarak regime to suppress civil society in Egypt it only feeds into the resentment of the people and emboldens groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Would we be better off if the Muslim Brotherhood became an elected government responsible to the people or if they took over in violent revolution? We can’t simply assume that the Mubarak regime can contain the people forever.
Indeed, we’re making the same mistake in Egypt that we did in Iran during the days of the Shah. Keeping a bastard in power because he’s our bastard is a short-sighted strategy that has the potential to fail catastrophically at any time. The Bush Administration cannot turn their back on brave Egyptians like Ayman Nour – or our noble experiment in democratization may fail, and this war will drag on far longer than it should.