Time for Pharaoh

It was the summer of 2005, and the air in the Middle East was full of hope. Lebanon had just ousted the Syrians, Iraqis were voting, and democracy was on the march across the region. In Egypt, where I had been living, the Kifaya reform movement was taking to the streets and Mubarak was allowing multi-party elections for the presidency. Even the US was hopeful, dispatching Condi to Cairo to pressure Egypt to follow through on its promises for reform. Well, we all know how this story ends. Lebanon and Iraq fall into chaos, and Egypt remains the same old authoritarian state we’ve grown to love.

It seems like the time has passed for the US to pressure Egypt on reform—both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt have come and gone, and politics seem pretty much dead until Mubarak decides to pass on the throne to his son, err, retire. Not so, argues Michelle Dunne is a new paper from the Carnegie Endowment. Dunne, whom I met in Cairo last year while we were both attending the annual convention of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, has a reputation for being quite the insider on the Egyptian political scene. According to her report, the Egyptian government is in the process of introducing a slew of new legislation that would give more power to the parliament, allow political parties more breathing room, and finally abolish the dictatorial Emergency Law. While I wouldn’t get too excited just yet—the Mubarak regime has a long track record of dashing expectations—Dunne makes a convincing case that now may be precisely the right time for the US to return its attention to Egypt.

The larger issue at hand is America’s relationship with the “Axis of Good”—the benevolent dictatorships in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that have gotten a free pass on reforms because of their generally pro-American behavior. Isn’t the central tenet of the Bush democracy doctrine that repression breeds terror, regardless of how Bush-kissing these dictators are? I don’t want to underestimate the value of having these leaders “on our side,” but there is a middle ground between militarized regime change and absolute negligence. Remember that most of these regimes are on our team because it benefits them—whether it’s countering the rise of Iran or preventing the spread of militant Islam to their own countries. Even just a little bit of nudging on reform could go a long way with these countries—and might be a way for us to do something good for democracy in the region.

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