“What could America do to help push democratization forward in Egypt? an American friend connected to U.S. policy-making circles asked me recently. My usual answer to that particularly persistent question is: “democratize Israel.
America’s foremost ally and strategic partner is the Middle East is a self-defined Jewish state, in which 20 percent of the population are Palestinian Arabs, and where 5.3 million people lord it over 5 million others, 3.7 million of whom (the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank) are totally disenfranchised (Palestinian self-rule remains the farce it has always been, notwithstanding all the internal bickering over who rules in an effectively empty self-rule arrangement, in which Israel holds all the strings – from money to life itself). None of it seems to provide the U.S with a suitable model for promoting democracy in the region.
Moreover, it has been my long-held belief that Arab authoritarianism is intimately tied to Israel’s continued oppression and dispossession of the Palestinians, and aggression against neighboring Arab states. And this not only because it provides authoritarian Arab regimes with the excellent pretext of having to safeguard the “internal front or “homeland security against a foreign threat (a pretext with which Americans should have become quite familiar since 9/11), but even more significantly because of the extremely distorting effects this seemingly endless victimization of Palestinians and Arabs has had on the intellectual and political climate in the Arab world.
I could also have mentioned: “end the occupation of Iraq ; “let up on Iran ; “stop fanning the flames of a clash of civilizations ; “try to refrain from making statements that describe the destruction of Lebanon and murder of thousands of Lebanese civilians as ‘the birth pangs of the New Middle East’ ; “don’t pass laws that sanction torture, obliterate due process and make a mockery of the principal of a fair trial ; “stop trying to undermine International Humanitarian Law by subverting the Geneva Conventions .
I said none of this however. It was a friendly, laid-back conversation. I was in no mood for lecturing. And, unlike many of my fellow “intellectuals , I make an effort to learn from experience. It would have been an exercise in futility. However polite my American interlocutor may have been, in his/her mind little wheels would have been turning to the effect that “here we go again, another Arab blaming everyone but themselves for their own failures. My awareness of that particular line of thinking is rather bolstered by the fact that, in part, I happen to share it.
So, instead, I suggested that rather than harping on about El-Ghad Party’s Ayman Nour’s imprisonment, President George W. Bush should make a powerful statement defending the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for their legalization as a political party and condemning their ongoing repression. After all, the Brotherhood happens to be the largest political opposition in the country; they hold 87 parliamentary seats; and they continue to suffer the greatest share of political repression. Such a statement, I pointed out, would be tantamount to dropping a whole flock of birds with a single stone.
It is only right and proper. Whether you happen to like the Brotherhood or not, there is no denying that their recognition as a legal political entity is absolutely crucial to achieving even a semblance of a democratic political process in the country. Moreover, a top-level American statement in defense of the democratic rights of the Brotherhood would go a long way towards countering the charge of double-standards with which both the authoritarian regimes and the pro-democracy opposition, in Egypt and throughout the region, hold Washington’s claims of promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East.
It would possibly help also in countering the increasingly virulent perception, from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond, that Washington’s perpetual “war on terror is, in fact, a war against Islam and Muslims, a new Crusade designed to undermine and subvert Muslim societies, obliterate our cultural and religious identity and impose Western-style democracy, licentiousness and depravity on our peoples. However unfair these charges may be, a statement by President Bush in defense of the Brotherhood (with or even without benefit of a special communication from God) would be considerably more effective in changing Arab and Muslim hearts and minds than a hundred of these Iftar banquets he’s been in the habit of hosting over the past few years.
There is also the fact that since the Hamas electoral victory in the Palestinian territories early this year, most Arabs – and a considerable number of American Middle East experts as well – have come to the conclusion that the Bush Administration has had a change of heart regarding its declared top-priority objective of promoting democracy in the Greater Middle East. Such a perception was further reinforced when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Egypt, soon after, and met with President Mubarak. In a subsequent interview with the editors of the state-owned press, Mubarak asserted that Ms. Rice was convinced that Egypt’s “gradualist approach to political reform was the proper path to take, and that she had even told him of her belief that “a full generation was required before democracy could be achieved in the Arab world.
True, the American administration has continued to insist that it is as committed as ever to the cause of democratization in the region, with President Bush lately issuing even stronger and increasingly more flowery statements on the matter. But, ask around. No one here really believes it – especially when they see the US and its European allies starving the Palestinians for having exercised their democratic right to choose their own – albeit powerless – government.
One final, juicy bird, I suggested, tongue-in-cheek. A statement by President Bush in defense of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while only right and proper, would outstrip all the persistent efforts of domestic secularists in undermining the group’s political and ideological sway.
I was reminded of all this when last week, jailed Ayman Nour and his Ghad Party made a flurry of statements vehemently denying any involvement in a letter sent to President Bush urging him to intervene to free Nour. An official statement issued by the Ghad Party charged that the letter was a hoax perpetrated by the Egyptian Interior Ministry to “defame Nour and destroy him morally.
Some weeks earlier, President Bush singled out Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, as a model of Egypt’s young reformers in whom he pins his hopes for political and economic reform in the country. The minister hastened to make a statement denying any responsibility for Bush’s compliment.
A couple of years before, the American President declared his enthusiastic support for Iran’s reformers. They lost the election.
In this part of the world, it seems, President Bush’s kisses leave a lot to be desired.
Hani Shukrallah is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the former Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.