Bush’s dream of democratic Middle East

Ignoring setbacks in Iraq and Syria and the post-Gaza impasse, George Bush continues to claim success for his policy of spreading democracy in the Arab world.
“Across the broader Middle East, we can see freedom”s power to transform nations and deliver hope,” he said in San Diego last week. “In Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, people have gone to the polls and chosen their leaders in free elections. Their example is inspiring millions across that region to claim their liberty and they will have it.”

But Mr Bush”s boast of a mass movement towards democratic participation rings hollow after Egypt”s first multi-candidate presidential election on Wednesday resulted in turnout below 30% and cries of fraud and intimidation.
While the election stimulated debate among Egypt”s middle class, commentators said it lacked credibility to most ordinary Egyptians who assumed all along that the incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, would win.

It also failed to meet the “objective standards” for a free and fair poll listed by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, in Cairo in June.

Ms Rice”s demand for international observers was ignored; nor were Egypt”s repressive emergency laws revoked. Opponents were instead obliged “to compete in an electoral system entirely stacked against them”, the Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan said, while the banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was barred from fielding a candidate. That raised the question of why Washington had not leaned harder on a government heavily subsidised by US taxpayers.

One answer was concern that stronger pressure could backfire. Egyptian officials reject claims that the limited electoral rule changes were made at America”s behest.

But Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist, suggested the US still feared Islamists could replace pro-American autocrats if reform was pushed too far, too fast.

“Arab regimes have long invoked the nightmare of anti-western fanatics taking power through the ballot box to frighten the US and Europe,” he said in a paper published by the Carnegie Endowment thinktank.

But the spectre of democratic coups stemmed from a misunderstanding of Arab trends, he said.

Although Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon still refused to abide by the rule of law, they were increasingly committed to democratic politics. At the same time, moderate, non-violent Islamist movements akin to the Muslim Brotherhood were emerging from Morocco to Kuwait to Yemen, he said.

Espousing a “new pragmatism” born of the demonstrable failure of radical, al-Qaida-style solutions in the 1990s, groups such as Jordan”s Islamic Action Front shared many objectives with liberal, secular Arab reformist parties but, unlike them, had broad grassroots support.

“Moderate Islamists reject violence and endorse competition through pluralistic politics and it is they [that] western governments should engage,” Mr Hamzawy said.

As long as the west shunned Islamist reformers, regimes such as those in Egypt and Tunisia would invent a “theatre of democratisation based on cosmetic reforms” or characterise western pressure as aggression.

“Without the active participation of moderate Islamists, calls for political transformation in the Arab world are bound to remain … irrelevant for the larger social fabric and harmless to authoritarian regimes,” he concluded.

Mr Bush shows no sign of grasping such nuances. In Cairo, US diplomats keep the Muslim Brotherhood at arm”s length. Washington”s private advice on reform to Arab leaders is “Take it easy”. But according to Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Saban Centre in Washington, Egypt”s parliamentary elections later this year offer a chance to do better.

The polls would “ultimately determine whether the new rules allow for truly competitive elections in future or merely consolidate the grip of the ruling party,” Ms Cofman Wittes predicts.

“Concerted American efforts can still help Egyptian judges, politicians, journalists and activists transform the parliamentary elections into a breakthrough for democratic change.”