So much for all the noise about democracy, reform, and good governance. The Bush administration has quietly tucked the file of political reform in the Arab world away. Friendly dictators have nothing to fear. The administration is back to its old ways. What matters in the region is not political change but stability (a euphemism for the preservation of political and military interests), and the flow of oil at the lowest possible prices.
The Bush administration had assumed that its invasion of Iraq would tip the existing balance of powers in the region upside down. Neighbouring Arab regimes would have to comply with American/Israeli dictates, or be ousted and replaced by new more domesticated, more docile “elites”, responsive to Washington’s demands and compatible with its vision for the region. Hand in hand with the heated battles fought by armies on the ground was a cold war waged with the slogans of democracy and reform, and promises of freedom and progress.
The truth is that the Americans were never committed to democracy in the region. To them, it was a convenient instrument for the construction of a new Middle East tailored to fit their strategies. That Anatoly Sharansky, the former Israeli illegal settlements minister who stands to the right of the far right Ariel Sharon, was the inspiration for Bush’s democratisation project is a symptom of the deadly flaw at its core. The American president, though not exactly known for being a voracious reader, is widely reported to have recommended Sharansky’s book to just about everyone he met. He quoted it almost verbatim in the inaugural speech of his second term. The book, he declared, was part of DNA. “If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy,” he told a Washington Post journalist, “read Natan Sharansky’s book, The Case for Democracy. It’s a great book.”
Three factors underlie the administration’s decision to abandon its much vaunted democratisation project and return to the game of maintaining the status quo, of aiding and abetting “good” dictatorships – a policy to which the US had been firmly committed since the cold war:
1) The occupation of Iraq and toppling of its president did not unleash the era of affluence and prosperity prophesied by Bush and his neocons. Iraq did not exactly turn into the envy of the Arab world. If anything, Iraqis and Arabs found themselves in the unlikely position of lamenting the passing of Saddam’s years, brutal as they were.
2) Ballot boxes became a fearful prospect where the administration’s proteges often found themselves at the bottom of the race, if not outside it altogether. Instead, it was the “hardliners”, the nationalists and Islamists, who are more responsive to the interests, demands and aspirations of their people than to those of the White House, who got the lion’s share of the votes.
This was the case in Egypt, where in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Islamic movement in the Arab world, succeeded in winning approximately one-third of the votes, in spite of the wide violations that mired the process and even though the organisation had confined itself to contesting 144 out of the 454 parliamentary seats to avoid aggravating the government. The same scenario was replicated months later in the Palestinian legislative elections which, much to Washington’s horror, ended up bringing Hamas to power. The Bush administration could take no more. Democracy, it transpired, was not for the likes of those who voted in the Egyptian and Palestinian elections.
“Either you elect the elites and rulers we need, or no democracy, reform, or change for you!”
3) A shift in priorities occurred in Washington. Confronting the Iranian “threat” shot up to the top, while reform sank downwards. Instead of tyrannies and democracies, the region became divided into “moderates” lined up against the “Shia crescent”, and “extremists” favourably disposed to it. Along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, which had until recently been dismissed as a Wahhabi terrorism incubator, found itself rehabilitated and promoted to the ranks of friendly moderates.
In her recent visit to the country, the American secretary of state demanded that the Egyptian government release Ayman Nour, the pro-US leader of the al-Ghad party. Listening to her, one would have thought that Mr Nour was the only political prisoner languishing inside Egypt’s packed jails. In fact, days before the Ms Rice’s visit, the authorities embarked on a renewed wave of mass arrests, targeting prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the non-violent Islamist group that is the country’s strongest opposition force.
It is worth noting that although the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest party affected by the ban, scores of other political forces suffer the same fate: 12 such parties have recently had their licensing requests refused by the Egyptian authorities. In addition, the long-awaited municipal elections were postponed for fear of a repeat of the legislative elections’ outcome, while the state of emergency in force for 26 years was renewed. Yet, with all the repression, corruption and tyranny, Mubarak’s regime was hailed a shining model of moderation.
Two years ago, Ms Rice confessed, without being subjected to sensory deprivation or cross-examination, that the US has been the chief impediment to change in the region.
“By now, it should be clear that decades of excusing and accommodating tyranny for the sake of stability, have only led to injustice and instability and tragedy,” she said. “For too many years – 60 to be precise – American presidents were on both sides of the aisle. By the way, Democrats and Republicans were prepared to have a policy of exceptionalism in the Middle East concerning democracy.
“We were prepared to say, well authoritarian regimes are there either because the Middle East, well they don’t really want freedom, or we want stability or any number of reasons that we have. We have not to push the democracy agenda in the Middle East.”
Now that the administration has decided to revert to its old ways in the Middle East, Ms Rice should take the stage once more and say, “We have supported tyranny in the past and we continue to support it today. Forget all the nonsense about democracy, reform, or change. You see, when push comes to shove, our interests must prevail.”
First Published in The Guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 February 2007