For Egypt, the future of democracy may not be as expected
By Swapan Dasgupta
The belief that 'right wing' conservatives constitute the "stupid party" has becomes conventional wisdom in 'enlightened', liberal circles. This aggregation became embedded in the world of intellectual fashion during the administration of President Ronald Reagan and was cast in stone during the eight-year tenure of President George W. Bush. And, like most things self-evident to the controllers of the opinions industry, it soon became a global axiom.
It is a measure of the fragility of certitudes that the past fortnight has witnessed an abrupt rehabilitation of both these pillars of the "stupid party". The spectacular mass demonstrations in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak and the resulting apprehension in the western world have contributed to a grudging respect for the "democratic agenda" that both Reagan and Bush pursued in the face of mockery and derision from both liberals and 'realists' alike.
In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, Bush made a speech that, in hindsight, appears prophetic: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."
In promoting democracy, Bush didn't quite live up to the exacting standards set by Reagan in his unrelenting opposition to the "evil empire"—an opposition that contributed to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. But even his discreet encouragement of pro-democracy activists and quiet pressure on Cairo to enlarge the scope of civil liberties so infuriated Mubarak that he didn't visit the White House even once during Bush's second term. By contrast, as the WikiLeaks have revealed, President Barak Obama and gave Mubarak a very wide berth, listened approvingly to his paranoiac fears of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and finally reposed faith in his canny survival instincts.
The extent to which a beleaguered US is able to influence the internal politics of a country such as Egypt or, for that matter, Tunisia and Jordan has often been exaggerated. Neither Mubarak nor King Abdullah of Jordan and even the deposed Ben Ali of Tunisia were quite the puppet dictators the US routinely propped up in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. Mubarak, through the Egyptian military, the elaborate security apparatus and the ruling National Democratic Party, had roots in Egyptian society, particularly that section which benefitted from the economic reforms of the past decade. His position in Egypt wasn't very dissimilar to that of the genial Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan who replenished his army support with the political backing of rural and tribal notables attached to the Muslim League.
Nor was Mubarak impervious to the need for safety valves by which Egyptians could let off steam. Aware that the mosque and the bazaar were two focal points of opposition, he learnt a few lessons from the Shah of Iran and avoided a policy of aggressive social modernisation. More important, he tried to undercut an important political plank of the Islamic opposition by appropriating two of its themes: anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Paradoxically for a ruler who was an important ally of the US in the region and who remained committed to the peace treaty his predecessor Anwar Sadat had signed with Israel, Mubarak allowed his state-controlled media and the state-funded clergy to carry on tirades against both the US and Israel. Some of the anti-Israel propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, was deeply offensive. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey of 2010, Egypt, along with Pakistan and Turkey, ranked as the country that had the least favourable attitude to the US.
However, state-sponsored anti-Americanism was coupled with harsh repressive measures against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extremist offshoots and a wariness of Iran's attempts to export its revolution.
Mubarak, like his two predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ousted the obese King Farouk and Sadat who salvaged a measure of Egyptian pride after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, was a crafty politician. He wouldn't have survived 30 years in power otherwise. Unfortunately, unlike his predecessors, he lived in another age, an age where old certitudes had crumbled.
There is a facile view that the TV images of the Egyptian uprising are the nearest thing to Facebook on the barricades. This perception has been bolstered by interviews with breathlessly committed "activists" who speak the language of freedom and democracy but who, as was irreverently noted, are better known to western journalists than to Egyptians. While these middle-class campaigners against Mubarak have undoubtedly given the protests an acceptable face in West and helped allay fears of another clergy-led uprising by the faithful, it is important to keep in mind the fact the crowds who have thronged in Tahrir Square and Alexandria are made up of people from the lower middle class and working class. Their opposition to the Mubarak dispensation is not centred on the freedom agenda alone but against the side-effects of Mubarak's economic reforms: corruption, crony capitalism and a fierce resentment of elite lifestyles. Tactically, these issues have been subordinated to the demand for democracy, but only for the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood hasn't been submerged in a larger movement; as the best organised political formation, after decades of undercover existence it has carefully delayed its moment in the sun.
Should the shadowy presence of the Muslim Brotherhood behind the grouping nominally led by Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei caution the world against democracy in a region which has a reputation for being "non-argumentative"? This is, for example, the argument used, ironically, by Israel—the only truly functioning democracy in West Asia—for its refusal to deal with the Hamas.
There are no easy answers. Apart from the principle that the will of the people must be respected, warts and all, there is the argument of Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky in his seminal The Case for Democracy. Noting the penchant of Israel for assuming that peace in the region can only be negotiated by dictators who can manage an unpopular truce autocratically, Sharansky warned of the inherent fragility of "fear societies" prone to doublespeak.
"I knew enough about fear societies", he wrote, "to realise that such a regime would inevitably threaten Israel. I thought we should link the legitimacy, money and concessions we and the rest of the world were giving (Yasser) Arafat to his regime's willingness to build a free society in the areas…under its control. In my view, the Palestinian Authority had to be given the same choice that had once faced the Soviets: Build a free society for your people and be embraced by the world, or build a fear society and be rejected by it."
Sharansky's logic should suggest that freedom and liberal democracy are the only civilised options in the contemporary world. It is a proposition certain to be fiercely contested in places as disparate as Beijing and Riyadh, not to speak of 'democratic' Washington wary of disrupted oil supplies and 'democratic' Tel Aviv fearful of encirclement by the Arab Street. Despite all the expectations of the idealists camped in Tahrir Square, Egyptians can expect little consistency over the future of democracy. Showing Mubarak the door is the easy option. But what if a new regime in Cairo actually starts reflecting the popular will?