6. Arab Dictators
Wednesday, February 21,2007 00:00
By Marina Ottaway, foreignpolicy.com

The Middle East’s strongmen were under pressure to reform. Now, they rest easy.
The failure of U.S. policy in Iraq has provided autocratic regimes in the Middle East a reprieve from the pressure to democratize, as long as they position themselves clearly on the side of Washington in its looming confrontation with Iran, Syria, and Shiite Islamists. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been the biggest beneficiaries of the U.S. loss of interest in draining the swamp of autocracy once it was confronted by large alligators such as Iran and its allies. Once again, autocracy is thriving—and so are the alligators.

Saudi Arabia has historically been a reliable U.S. partner, trading cheap oil for American protection. Egypt, kept at arm’s length during the Nasser years, became a staunch ally after President Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem and then signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978. The pro-Western stance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia protected them from criticism, until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that is. Almost overnight, the two countries became U.S. enemies, accused of fostering terrorism by denying their citizens democracy and wealth-generating free market policies. Authoritarianism and bad economic policy, according to Washington’s new creed, engendered frustrations that found release in terrorism. The antidote was democracy.

For a few years, Egypt and Saudi Arabia thus found themselves in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of being lectured on democracy by U.S. officials. Egypt bore the brunt of the criticism because it was obvious what reforms the government needed to introduce to become more democratic. Egyptian officials were repeatedly lectured on competitive elections and constitutional amendments; most seriously, the United States postponed discussion of a free trade agreement after the Egyptian government sentenced a moderate opposition leader to a five-year prison term on charges that were flimsy at best. Saudi Arabia got off more easily, partly because nobody had a blueprint on how to transform that kingdom into a democracy, and partly because of America’s dependency on its oil. Nevertheless, the country fell under a pall of suspicion, accused of financing the spread of radical Islam and even terrorist groups. Never again, administration officials and pundits proclaimed, would the United States support authoritarian regimes for the sake of short-run stability. September 11 put an end to that policy. Well, at least for a few years.

As the United States has become mired in bloody chaos in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have wound up back in the Bush administration’s good graces. But it’s not because they’ve become more democratic. Saudi Arabia has not changed. The Egyptian regime is backsliding, becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent as it nears the inevitable end of the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and braces for a difficult succession. Nevertheless, the two countries have been rehabilitated, or at least relabeled: Sadly, they are now what passes for “moderate.” As Franklin D. Roosevelt might have put it in more frank language, they are still the same S.O.B.s, but they are once again “our S.O.B.s.”

It’s back to Cold War politics in the Middle East. The lofty ideals of democracy promotion may still find their way into the administration’s speeches, but when it comes to policy, America’s enemies’ enemies are its friends. The enemy is Iran and, like the Soviet Union of yore, Iran has surrounded itself with dangerous minions—Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. Iran wants to dominate the region, and Washington will support countries that have an interest in resisting such domination. Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be counted upon to do so. That makes them “moderates,” and that is good enough.

But Egypt and Saudi Arabia are paying a high price for this reprieve from Washington’s pro-democracy zeal. They must contend with an Iran no longer constrained by Iraqi power, with a Shiite revival, with the collapse of Iraq, with a Lebanon that may descend into chaos, and with a Palestine that already has. It is far from clear whether Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not happily trade the problems brought about by the destabilization of the region for renewed pressure to reform. But now, they don’t have a choice.

Marina Ottaway is director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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