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I'll Take Democracy

Elsewhere in TNR, Joseph Braude speaks out against the growing number of voices from the left and the right calling for the US to end its support for the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. The argument is almost shockingly conventional -- without Mubarak the Islamists may win! And, yes, they may. But look, this is just a pattern that needs to be broken. Braude's alternative, pressure Mubarak not to introduce democracy, but to adopt policies that will strengthen liberalism and then once that's done push for democracy is just too cute to be workable. If the United States could really micromanage political outcomes abroad like this well, then, the world would be a very different place. But our efforts to micromanage outcomes like this have typically been disastrous. Our Iraq policy has worked best at the moments where we've more-or-less let things slide rather than trying to manipulate exactly the guy we want to see in power land in power. Most notably, Arab suspicion of American efforts at democracy-promotion are largely focused on the idea that this is exactly what we're doing. Saying "democracy" but mean, "the free election of political parties that like the United States, will be nice to Israel, friendly to foreign direct investment, and generally cooperative with our security policies." It's a road we've been traveling for over a decade and it's time to get off.

Nothing, I think, could be more useful for America's image then for a dialogue like this to occur in public:

Bush: Let people vote!
Mubarak: If I do that, they'll elect anti-American Islamsist.
Bush: Maybe so, but Egyptians deserve to be governed by the party they choose, we'll do our best to work with whoever wins. I've often had disagreements with the leaders of Canada, Germany, South Korea and other countries. That's what happens under democracy. But those nations are still America's friends and allies.
Mubarak: But maybe the new Egypt won't want to be America's friend and ally.
Bush: Maybe not, but I'm convinced that over the long run it's better for Egyptians to govern themselves.
Relately, the Muslim Brotherhood would be much less anti-American if preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from coming to power weren't an explicity policy objective of the United States. Clearly, I wouldn't vote for the Muslim Brotherhood were I an Egyptian. Nor would I have voted for Sistani's UIA List. I think being governed by Islamists would suck. I think being governerd by Christianists sucks. But social conservativism is a legitimate force in democratic politics, and it deserves to be fought out democratically.

Last but by no means least, I doubt that forcing Mubarak to run in a contested election would, in fact, lead to his removal from power. He would probably bribe, cheat, intimidate, etc. his way to re-election. But merely having the campaign would be the sort of liberalizing first step Braude wants to see. Think of the PRI's extended fall from power in Mexico. It went from party-state to democracy by way of corrupt psuedo-democracy. That's probably the sort of model we should be looking at for Egypt, especially because Mubarak's party does have a real constituency and that constituency isn't going to just vanish. It would likely be a drawn out process, and we ought to get started.

February 17, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Mr. Yglesias,

Excellent comment.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 1:44:03 PM

It's a shame we don't actually democracy. If that were the case, the suggested strategy would be excellent for achieving our goals.

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 17, 2005 1:47:55 PM

This is where the rubber meets the road in American belief in democracy. Sadly, we always come out as cowards in the end.

We must be willing to let the people of the mideast hate us, and elect governments that don't like us. If we are not, our steadfast belief in democracy is nothing more than lip service and hypocrisy: democracy for me, not for thee.

We have the best funded military on earth -- we should not have a lot to fear from a democratic Middle East. They are not invading Texas any time soon (and even if they were to do that, we'd have to live with it!). We can work with anyone the people of the ME elect, whether we want to or not.

And in the end, if we quit giving the people of the ME so many reasons to hate us, go figure, they might slowly start to stop hating us!

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 17, 2005 1:49:24 PM

Exactly, 100% spot on, Matthew.

I really, really, REALLY wish Bush would do this; it is much to Bush's detriment that he doesn't. Indeed, THIS is the type of issue that I would support theatening to pull US aid over (as opposed to, say, the jailing of the pro-democracy advocate, which last month Matthew advocated threatening to pull aid over).

I would be interested to know which are the "growing number of voices from the ... right" calling for this. Because I haven't heard very many.

Posted by: Al | Feb 17, 2005 1:51:02 PM

That seems right. US interventions in other countries that favor one internal party over another can backfire pretty quickly.

Posted by: joe o | Feb 17, 2005 1:51:42 PM

Drat. That was supposed to read "actually value democracy".

Posted by: Matt G. | Feb 17, 2005 1:52:08 PM

There are a number of other candidates who appear to be contesting the elections, but they don't really have a fair shot.

In any case, I think that Braude's argument about Mubarak being the great tan hope of Egyptian liberalism is a bit silly ... I mean, dude has had 23 years at the helm, and he has barely done shit other than making things decidedly worse. Now, Nazif seems like a man of action, but unless his economic liberalization is accompanied by some political liberalization, I don't think his program will work.

Still, I'm not psyched about the MB either, because they're not democrats. There are other Islamist groups out there, though, who might well be. And if it weren't for this whole "being arrested" thing, Nour might have become a contenda!

I think the better argument for a "go-slow" approach with Egypt is that without Mubarak, it's going to be a heck of a lot harder to get anything done on a comprehensive settlement. There's a unique window of opportunity right now, and we should take advantage of it. If it falls apart, then I do think you have to say "fuck it," though.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 17, 2005 1:52:56 PM

Whoa, the second silly post in a row. Ah, yes, the New Republic. So, it's one of those annoying silly days, then. Great.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 17, 2005 1:54:17 PM

Think of the PRI's extended fall from power in Mexico. It went from party-state to democracy by way of corrupt psuedo-democracy.

Yup. That's the exact analogy.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 17, 2005 1:56:20 PM

"Whoa, the second silly post in a row. Ah, yes, the New Republic."

Braude is wrong, but Beinart is right.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 17, 2005 1:57:50 PM

Still, I'm not psyched about the MB either, because they're not democrats.

This is exactly right. That only thing to fear is the election of a "one person, one vote, one time" group. Is that the Muslim Brotherhood? Dunno. But, given recent events, we can be pretty sure that there ARE Islamist groups out there that DO support democracy.

Posted by: Al | Feb 17, 2005 1:58:33 PM

Exactly right. We cannot have a peaceful, productive, relationship with the Islamic or Arab world unless the populations of that world choose to do so, and absent the ability to lend consent to their governance, they cannot choose to do so. Might the populations choose differently? Sure, but that doesn't leave us in a measurably worse position than where we are now.

Posted by: Will Allen | Feb 17, 2005 1:58:51 PM

Mr. Klein,

The odd thing is, the US really hasn't given the people of the Mideast much reason to hate it, as in increasing their level of oppression or stealing their valuables. Egypt was a degenerate mess since the middle ages, and whatever trend to progress it had from the late 19th century was shut down by anti-American socialist governments, whose pernicious system still mostly survives. There is very little US (or any western) investment in Egypt. It seems to me all that hate is the result of internal Arab/Muslim/Egyptian cultural transference of dissatisfaction via Israel, anti-semitism, and bitter feelings about the failure of socialism.

As for Arabia et. al., the US (and Britain) is guilty of bringing them riches - a windfall market for resources they had no way of creating or exploiting for themselves, and the US was nice enough to let them nationalize all that and keep the lions share of the revenues.

The US really can't prop up a government in a country of that size. There is no mechanism by which the US can suppress dissent in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or keep its government in power against the will of its people. US aid is a drop in the Egyptian bucket.

Arab hate of the US is the unfortunate result of human perversity - the need to blame someone else for one's problems. The US deserves little blame.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 2:01:43 PM

Think of the PRI's extended fall from power in Mexico. It went from party-state to democracy by way of corrupt psuedo-democracy.

This is not really all that accurate; the PRM (later PRI) regime in Mexico was always a "corrupt pseudo-democracy" (though, perhaps, initially less corrupt then genuinely attempting to establish a stable regime after the chaos of the revolutionary period) as well as a conjoined party-state apparatus. And, in fact, it hasn't transformed to a democracy, but to a corrupt pseudo-democracy that happens to have competitive parties.

That's probably the sort of model we should be looking at for Egypt, especially because Mubarak's party does have a real constituency and that constituency isn't going to just vanish. It would likely be a drawn out process, and we ought to get started.


I'm not sure a system that hasn't been substantively democratic in form, even if not in practice, can follow that trail. Certainly, the PRM/PRI regime did not have an extended period without regular elections and adherence to democratic formalities, even if for much of its rule there was an absence of substantive democracy. While it was always a corrupt, and perhaps equally importantly heavily patronage driven system, the formalities of democracy at all levels were observed.

Also, the PRM/PRI regime had the advantage in transitioning to a more competitive system of Mexico's federal structure, which allowed a substantive phased (though certainly not organized as such) transition where the legislature and the state governments became somewhat competitive long before the federal executve was competitive.

Further, the PRM/PRI regime, in becoming somewhat more democratic, had the additional advantage that it didn't have any serious threat similar to radical Islam. The EZLN, while a substantial local movement for greater rights, isn't a serious threat to national stability or most Mexican's personal safety; the popular political opposition -- either the PAN on the right or the less-powerful PRD on the left -- in Mexico wasn't and isn't radically and violently opposed to the general policy program of the PRI, outside of its corrupt retention of power. Sure, the PRD and the PAN each opposed and oppose particular PRI policies, but its not impossible for them to function together in a government.

I think any transition in Egypt is a lot more likely to look like the transition from tyranny to superficially democratic tyranny in the USSR to modern Russia than to look anything like the long slide from corrupt, single-party-dominant electoral pseudo-democracy to corrupt, multiple-competitive party, electoral pseudo-democracy in Mexico. But I don't think Russia is a completely convincing model for Egypt, either.

Posted by: cmdicely | Feb 17, 2005 2:03:05 PM

To me there's no right or wrong in any of this stuff; anything published in TNR or any commenting on any of it, Petey. It all seems like some comedy sketch making fun of intellectuals.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 17, 2005 2:04:12 PM

"Might the populations choose differently? Sure, but that doesn't leave us in a measurably worse position than where we are now."

I think Braude is on balance wrong, but don't pretend there aren't significant possible risks.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 17, 2005 2:08:11 PM

One question for those who think the US should support democracy in Egypt even if it means an Islamist regime: Do you also think the US should continue to provide Egypt the high level of the aid it provide if such a regime is elected?

Posted by: cmdicely | Feb 17, 2005 2:11:25 PM

What I find hilarious is that the good people demanding freedom for the poor opressed Egyptians are usually the same people who demand that Saudis crack down on their awful wahabi madrasses.

Posted by: abb1 | Feb 17, 2005 2:22:30 PM

Arab hate of the US is the unfortunate result of human perversity - the need to blame someone else for one's problems. The US deserves little blame.

Completely wrong. The US doesn't deserve all of the blame. But we most certainly do deserve a very big helping of the blame. America decided to support the post-colonial subjugation of the ME, and take over as boss from the former colonialist. Sure, we are not as outwardly harsh as the colonial powers, but we are not at all innocent in the matter.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Feb 17, 2005 2:23:22 PM

Do you also think the US should continue to provide Egypt the high level of the aid it provide if such a regime is elected?

Good question, but in that case, would they even want it?

Posted by: JP | Feb 17, 2005 2:26:08 PM

What I find hilarious is that the good people demanding freedom for the poor opressed Egyptians are usually the same people who demand that Saudis crack down on their awful wahabi madrasses.

No, those are usually different people.

Posted by: JP | Feb 17, 2005 2:27:02 PM

I was going to make basically the same point about the PRI analogy as cmdicely makes above, so I'll just add one more thing: the Mexican political system took SEVENTY YEARS to move from "corrupt pseudo-democracy" to what it is today, namely, "somewhat less corrupt pseudo-democracy."

How this is a path we want to emulate is completely beyond me, apart from the convenient circumstance that during this period Mexico has never attacked the US or Israel.

Posted by: right | Feb 17, 2005 2:30:17 PM

Mr. Klein,

Post-colonial subjugation ? The US stopped Britain and France from retaining control of Egypts most important resource in 1956, and preserved Egyptian sovereignty, which of course the Nasser regime repaid the US by siding with the Soviets. The US had zero power over Egypt until it started subsidizing it in the 1980's - the influence of a donor to a beggar. Where does the US carry any reponsibility or blame here ? I see absolutely none. Egypt was as independent a country as has ever been.

Posted by: luisalegria | Feb 17, 2005 2:30:59 PM

Great post, Matt. I totally agree, though I'm not sure what "go slow" means in practice. It's very likely that over the short and medium term the dominant political parties would be either Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood) or socialists (not necessarily Nasserites but some new breed of socialist). Liberal capitalism is just not popular in the Middle East right now because there is no constituency to sustain it - a middle class. Islamists don't like it because it contravenes Islamic banking principles, and socialists don't like it because it means foreigners end up owning most of the nation's wealth, setting up an oligarchy that preserves social inequality. However, that is something for the Egyptian people to work through, not for us to force on them. They need to discover, on their own, that Islamism and socialism won't answer their problems. And more importantly, they need to do so through the active engagement of their own civic culture, not through the vortex of an external power-play involving Israel, Osama bin Laden and the United States.

Cmdicely raises a good question about aid to the regime. We provide aid to Egypt because it is friendly to Israel. We should continue to provide aid but shift the rationale - we provide aid to democracies, period. If an elected Egyptian government breaks off ties with Israel because that's what the Egyptian people want, then we shouldn't use that as an excuse to tank a fledgling Egyptian democracy.

Posted by: Elrod | Feb 17, 2005 2:32:55 PM

Nice post. But it's also important to understand that you are running against your own bad reputation here. The operational principle has been "do what I say, not what I do" for so long, that right now it's gonna take a while for us to take your rethoric seriously.

Posted by: Carlos | Feb 17, 2005 2:52:54 PM

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