Has President George W. Bush given up on his liberty doctrine? From Libya to Iran to Azerbaijan, the Bush administration appears to have downgraded the importance of democracy promotion. Nowhere, however, has this new indifference to democracy been more striking than in Egypt.
The apparent reversal on Egypt is so profound and surprising because it may be the one country in the world where the Bush administration was the boldest in pressuring an autocratic regime to change its ways.
In January 2005, Bush devoted nearly his entire second inaugural address to his liberty doctrine. He boldly and rightly declared that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for freedom in our world is the expansion of freedom in all of the world.” Egypt soon became a test case for these prosaic words, and initially Bush and his administration seemed serious.
A month into her new job as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice canceled a trip to Cairo to protest the jailing of Ayman Nour, head of the liberal opposition party Al Ghad, on trumped-up charges. Rice was practicing what she had recently dubbed “transformational diplomacy”—leveraging state-to-state relations to push for democratic change.
Having provided Egypt with roughly $2 billion annually in aid for more than 30 years, the United States could wield leverage. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt seemed to respond. He amended Article 76 of Egypt’s constitution to open the door for Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential election, accepted an expanded margin of freedom in the press, and partially eased his government’s intimidation of opposition forces.
A trajectory toward greater political pluralism seemed to be gaining momentum. Bush’s liberty doctrine seemed to be producing results.
|Nowhere has the Bush adminstration’s new indifference to democracy been more stiking than in Egypt.|
In fact, however, Mubarak did the minimum, appeasing Washington while his regime was under great scrutiny during the presidential and parliamentary elections. Once those elections were over, Mubarak rolled back his incremental reforms. In the first six months of 2006, he extended the emergency law until 2008 and postponed municipal elections, originally scheduled to take place this year. His government has stepped up its intimidation of opposition politicians and of judges rallying for greater independence of the judiciary.
The Bush response? Hardly noticeable. Apart from freezing negotiations on a free-trade agreement, the administration has kept a low profile on Egypt’s disturbing political developments. Most strikingly, without any objection from the Bush administration, Congress recently approved yet again a multibillion-dollar economic and military aid package for Egypt, without asking anything in return from the Mubarak regime regarding political reform.
U.S. aid to Egypt has always been for political purposes. President Jimmy Carter initiated this massive assistance package in return for Egypt’s willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and to leave the pro-Soviet camp.
The major challenge now facing the United States in this region is how to help democratize Arab polities and, in so doing, give peace, stability, and moderation a chance in the struggle against dictatorship and violence. So it is downright mysterious why U.S. aid to Egypt should continue to flow with no political strings attached.
The Bush administration could make the linkage very explicit by putting forward clear benchmarks and timelines for political reform. If Bush were serious about his liberty doctrine, at a minimum U.S. aid could be restructured to give less to the Egyptian military and more to domestic civil society and to U.S. nongovernmental organizations involved in democracy promotion. Yet, ironically, these organizations are now under siege in Egypt.
|Yet again, Congress recently approved a multibillion-dollar economic and military aid package for Egypt, without asking the Mubarak regime for political reform in return.|
Bush’s retreat on democracy promotion has implications well beyond Cairo. Autocrats throughout the Middle East are watching. To date, the lesson is obvious: Do a few minor reforms to appease the Americans when they are paying most attention (during elections), then roll these reforms back after the vote.
In retrospect, it may have been a better strategy for Bush not to have delivered his second inaugural speech about liberty but instead to quietly push for incremental reforms. At this stage, however, the words have already been spoken. Bush must now back them up with real policies that show his commitment to freedom. If he fails in Egypt, he fails throughout the Middle East.