How small steps can pave the way to democracy in the Middle East

How small steps can pave the way to democracy in the Middle East

Almost a decade ago, near the end of the Clinton administration, I was chatting with Theresa Loar, who ran the State Department’s women’s office, and she told me about how she had tricked other senior officials in the building.

She was trying to persuade them to attend a meeting on an issue they weren’t likely to care about. “So I told them we were going to talk about democracy promotion — the department’s evergreen issue.”

As Loar noted, promoting democracy has been a foreign-policy priority for decades — since long before President Bush soiled the brand. President Obama has said he intends to increase funding to agencies involved in democracy promotion because, as he put it last year, “we benefit from the expansion of democracy. Democracies are our best trading partners, our most valuable allies and the nations with which we share our deepest values.”

But then comes the thorny question: What about democracy promotion in the Middle East — easily the most repressive region in the world and, arguably, the most important? The recent history is not encouraging.

Egypt staged elections, and the Muslim brotherhood won 88 seats in parliament. The Palestinian territories staged elections, and Hamas won. Lebanon staged elections, and then Hezbollah managed to force the elected government to give it veto power over its decisions.

And there’s more.

While working in Cairo last summer, I interviewed several leaders of Kefaya, a small citizens group calling for democratic change. The Egyptian government has arrested and harassed its members. These leaders decried the government’s repressive policies and said all the right things to an American visitor. In fact they sounded almost like Jeffersonian democrats. Then, when I headed out the door they handed me a sheaf of papers.

I filed them away, but when I finally managed to read them, I was shocked. These people were well educated, English speaking, seemingly Western-oriented Egyptians. And yet, their literature frothed with invective about the “Zionist lobby” and its “odious assault on Arab native soul.” The United States and the world’s Jews “are two sides of the same coin, each nourishing the other, and neither curable alone.”

In Egypt, even liberal democrats are besotted with angry, racist prejudice — and worse. Do we want these people governing Egypt? Does the Obama administration really want to promote democracy in the Middle East?

By most accounts, Obama is not going to make the same mistakes Bush made. To the Bush administration, promoting democracy meant encouraging, even forcing, nations to hold elections. That’s what happened in Egypt and Palestine.

But democracy cannot flourish in nations that have no middle class — and no history of free political discussion. In those places, the church, or mosque, offers the most accessible shelter and organizing philosophy. Since almost no one else can speak out publicly, the clerics’ views, radical or moderate, become the most important political voices in the land.

A society that can embrace democracy is one whose citizens have something they want to protect. Democracy promotion, then, should involve economic development — and with it greater social freedoms, such as freedom of speech, assembly, the press.

Egypt has none of that. But remember, the United States gives Egypt $2 billion a year, the legacy of a deal struck during the Camp David negotiations with Israel in 1978. Why couldn’t the Obama administration condition that aid? Why couldn’t Washington insist on greater freedom of speech this year, greater freedom of the press next year? In truth, for Egypt, like many autocratic countries, those two steps alone would likely begin moving the country in the right direction.

Why hasn’t Washington done this before? Arabists in the State Department will tell you: We need Egypt to help solve the Gaza problem, to help us pressure Iran. We need Egypt to support us in the war on terror. …

Convincing Egypt and other states to offer more political freedoms will, in fact, deal a blow to terrorists. As Tamara Cofman Wittes writes in her book: “Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy,” granting political freedoms will “increase the ability of Arab societies to debate, test and, it is hoped, reject the claims of the radical Islamic movement.”

I have no doubt that democracy promotion will be an important part of Obama’s foreign policy. But let’s up hope that, unlike his predecessors, he has the fortitude to confront Arab dictators and persuade them to begin taking small steps. Creating democracies in the Middle East is a generational project. But it will never begin unless we take the first steps now.

*Joel Brinkley is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University.