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democracy promotion’s tattletales

February 2, 2011

As the carefully orchestrated chaos on Tahrir Square climaxed today, with government-sponsored thugs attacking peaceful protesters, the maxim of democracy being a process and not an end result never seemed truer. There was speculation in some quarters yesterday even that Mubarak was deliberately allowing mass, open displays of dissent, just to satisfy the urges of his people. In my own senior project on the function of the press under authoritarian regimes, I questioned whether the Mubarak regime permitted reasonable dissent and debate in the media as a means of quelling real opposition, thwarting genuine moves toward regime change. Mubarak’s strong grasp on his heaving country of 80 million has been clear in the recent days. Egypt still lives under an authoritarian dictator, and one who plans “to die on Egyptian soil.” The will of the people is irrelevant. What will make it relevant?

It seems there are two remaining channels Mubarak would listen to. These are the United States, and his own tight-knit, army-centric inner-circle. It seems odd, that in the wave of such an intense, populist uprising, that two solidly anti-populist entities would be responsible for advancing Egypt on the path to democracy. I sense the former may have better chances.

For all the shortcomings of the disjointed approach on Egypt taken by the Obama administration, their seeming vagueness and multi-actor (Clinton, Biden, Obama, et alii) scheme, it is now clear that it was the most effective one. The Mubarak regime has done its part to prove its incompetence and unwillingness to change now, today’s actions only underscoring that. As the third largest benefactor of US aid and a decades-old partner in diplomacy, Egypt stands to still listen, still understand, still implement, what it is the US is saying. Why now? Why not earlier? Why not when human rights activists, gay men, bloggers and others were being detained, jailed, even tortured? For the simple reason that the Egyptian government’s threat is now an existential one. Mubarak’s fear of assassination, worries of the Gaza border, terrorism in the Sinai and so forth all must pale in comparison to the clear and present danger to not just the vitality of the regime but the very lives of its leaders. The ever-forgiving US ought to bring the Egyptians in, as US special envoy Frank Wisner is doubtless doing, and talk straight about real democracy, real change, real action. The point of no return for Mubarak and the NDP was passed a couple days ago—their probability of staying in power through to September is vanishingly small. This is to say, the NDP and Mubarak must show they are no longer involved in governing, and never will be. The US’s role is ideally one of proactive bystander and mentor where necessary. Ensuring the 1979 peace treaty with Israel is upheld is perhaps the biggest, albeit overblown, concern of the United States at this point. From a purely anecdotal standpoint, I would say there is little risk any forthcoming government would look to violate this peace. The US should rest assured the will of the people is more rational than Mubarak ever was, or will be. The moment is ripe to absolve past US foreign policy sins, starting with wishing Mubarak the best. Stability and democracy are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the sole preserve of the US when united. The Mubarak situation was inherently unstable, though no one wished to admit it.

The second avenue of democracy promotion comes from within. It is a more unpredictable sort of avenue, unlikely even. Mubarak’s secretive, trusted inner-circle has benefited tremendously from his many years in power, with respect to wealth, prestige and power. Their interests are intrinsically linked to Mubarak’s leadership. Seeing the value of a clean transition, of regime change, they may be most able to sway the frail leader’s thinking on how to handle the situation. Could these stodgy old men be the bearers of democracy in Egypt? Perhaps. They have Hosni’s ear (or his wife’s, if you’re among those who think Suzanne is running the show) and they have some actual power still.

The people on the street matter. The two million on Tahrir are vital to this story. I do not wish to minimize their role. They are the catalyst of change. But the more anti-democratic ways of diplomacy and the upper echelons of leadership under any government may have more leverage here. One can only hope the protesters persist, as I think they will, in conveying their dismay with the status quo and the potemkin reform offerings of Mubarak. The US and the world stand to benefit from a truly reformed Egypt, and should stand-by to assist, without taking an overbearing role.


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