• Reports
  • November 11, 2005
  • 3 minutes read

US democracy drive throws up dilemmas

US democracy drive throws up dilemmas

President George W. Bush’s announcement in 2003 that the US would henceforth adopt “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” was welcome. His reasoning that Washington’s cold war search for stability through support for anti-communist authoritarian regimes had only produced instability for the region and stoked popular resentment of the US was sound. But, for reasons quite separate from his misadventure in Iraq, promotion of democracy is proving difficult.

 For the US is finding friends in regions such as the Middle East and Central Asia hard to shift from their old authoritarian practices. Azerbaijan, now an oil-rich and pro-western state, has just held parliamentary elections, but there have been widespread protests at the result loaded in favour of President Ilham Aliyev and his ruling party. In Egypt, a large recipient of US aid, people have been voting this week in the first round of parliamentary elections, but early counts show a big lead for the party of President Hosni Mubarak amid similar accusations of intimidation and vote-buying.

Nor are the results quite what the US might have hoped. For example, Egyptian parties are fielding far fewer women candidates in this election than they did at the last election. The reason appears to be that parties now have to get five per cent of parliamentary seats to gain the privilege of running a candidate against Mr Mubarak in the next presidential poll, and are unwilling to jeopardise this chance with too many electoral challenges to Egypt’s male-dominated political culture. This will disappoint Mr Bush’s new supremo for US public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, who last month was touring the region to promote women’s rights as well as democracy.

One day, too, the US may have to face the prospect that the freer elections become, the more likely they are to bring to power Islamists who in many parts of the Arab world are seen as the most genuine opposition. A mild version of this exists in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition grouping but has to act as a collection of independents.

But if friendly US regimes are not helping Mr Bush’s cause, the reverse is also true. The Bush administration’s continuing failure to accord the most basic elements of fair trial to the al-Qaeda suspects it has incarcerated at Guantánamo for more than three years tars the image of the US, and by extension of its regional allies. This damage far outweighs the support the US is giving to the promotion of democracy through such schemes as the “Foundation for the Future” unveiled by the US this week in Bahrain. Ironically, one architect of this scheme is Liz Cheney, the state department official whose father, the vice-president, has been busy on Capitol Hill trying to emasculate a proposed ban on the torture of prisoners. A case of the daughter’s work undermined by the father.