Let's buy democracy

A high-powered delegation of U.S. officials visited Cairo last month to find ways to support the revolution. They, along with diplomatic and development officials, have been working quietly, meeting with residents, activists and the leadership, and asking how best to spend the $150 million that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said would soon be available to help shore up the economy and provide technical assistance in the move toward democracy.

By the time the U.S. delegation departed, no Egyptian pro-democracy organizations had asked for assistance.

No doubt in due time they'll find the usual opportunistic organizations that only exist because aid has been earmarked to suck at their teat. But I find nothing more sordid than the idea of "political party development" — if a political movement is not organized enough to launch a party, of which there have been plenty in Egypt's history, then it does not deserve to be a party. Let it fail, others will succeed. If any aid has to be accepted, I'd much rather see it go to a NGO dedicated to collecting, assessing and conserving State Security documents (and linking them with US ones through Freedom of Information requests.)

In the meantime aid money is much better spent on restoring the world's support in the economies of Egypt and Tunisia — guaranteeing loans, working on improving risk ratings, etc.

The democration promotion debate, updated

For my money, the most interesting person in think-tank-land working on issues of neo-authoritarianism and democracy promotion is Steve Heydemann. Steve is not only a very nice guy, but also a rare denizen of Washington who doesn't spout conventional wisdom or who doesn't act like a weathervane (like those people who were for democracy in the Arab world in 2005 but then not so hot about it in 2006). He has a very good article up at FP (those guys sure are productive) in which he makes an important point in the democracy promotion debate:

If Arab regimes are learning from and adapting to events in Tunisia, is the Obama administration doing the same? What lessons does Tunisia hold for U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world? It is early days yet in Tunisia's uncertain path from the breakdown of an authoritarian regime to real democratization. Yet it is already becoming clear that the success of Ben Ali's regime in crushing and fragmenting opposition forces has created enormous obstacles to the construction of a new political order. In so thoroughly dominating a political space, the immediate legacy of Ben Ali's regime -- and a leading threat to its democratic prospects -- is the incoherence and inexperience of his opponents and their flailing attempts to navigate between the Scylla of the old order's restoration and the Charybdis of a descent into chaos that might provoke direct military intervention. If Tunisia is an extreme instance of the weakness of opposition forces, it is hardly alone; other Arab regimes suffer from similar deficits. 

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An Egyptian test for Obama

My new column at al-Masri al-Youm: An Egyptian test for Obama | Al-Masry Al-Youm. It's on the recent meeting on promoting democracy in Egypt at the National Security Council. You might also check out this piece by my fellow columnist Bahey el-din Hassan, a veteran human rights activist, and Steve Cook with a more cautious take.

The whole issue of US pressure on Egypt is pretty complicated, involving many variables and much that is unknown — most notably what Hosni Mubarak is thinking. Over the next few weeks, time permitting (I'm swamped right now), I'd like to go into more depth on this issue that is not just important, but a recurrent feature of bilateral relations.

NSC killing time, talking about Egypt

Laura Rozen of Politico has gotten us the details of the recent Working Group on Egypt meeting with the National Security Council (including grandees Dan Shapiro, Dennis Ross and Samantha Power) which gives us some ruminations about what new take on democracy promotion the Obama administration might take. Considering it has been consistently ignored when making public (or private) statements I fear this will take the kind of initiative that would be completely unnatural to Washington. I also love Rozen's last paragraph, which suspects that dealing with the Egypt question was merely a form relaxation for a White House that definitely asks a lot of its allies, but never gets anything. In this way Israel and Egypt are similar.

It may also be a sign as well that Ross and Shapiro basically had both time and reason to devote to the issue because the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is currently on hold, and the Obama administration is “looking for a positive agenda in the region to talk about," a participant posited. The Obama administration is also concerned, he suggested, that its previous diplomatic efforts to press Cairo in private conversations and in written statements to repeal its Emergency Law and to accept international elections monitors have been rejected or ignored.

I am rather concerned, though, to see that not was Working Group member Elliott Abrams attending, but also another prominent Israel lobbyist, Rob Satloff of WINEP. I figure these guys will support US pressure on Egypt as a means of getting even more pro-Israel positions from Cairo, which will turn to the Lobby to defend itself if it really gets into trouble with Obama. This is after all what happened when Ariel Sharon was PM.

New Blog: Steven Cook at CFR

Veteran Egypt (and Turkey and Algeria) watcher Steven Cook, an expert on things military and much else, has a new blog at the Council of Foreign Relations website. Steven, who wrote a masterful comparison of the military regimes in those three countries in Ruling But Not Governing, is currently working on a book on Egypt-US relations since the 1950s, which should come out next year.

In his latest post, written from Ankara, he writes about whether Turkey needs the carrot of EU membership to carry out democratic change anymore. It's something I've been thinking about a lot right now, having come to see Turkey as a democracy (despite remaining problems about its treatment of minorities and some laws left over from the military dictatorship era). And in fact, the recent constitutional changes were carried out at a time when the EU connection is getting weaker.

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Khouri on Clinton's Internet Initiative

Two points  on Rami Khouri's latest column, about US initiatives to encourage internet use and youth etc.

This one I partly disagree with:

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

Sure, there might be a lot of passive users of the internet. But when in so many countries the internet is being used to mobilize, spread information and organize, it can hardly be called a passive medium. It draws in an admittedly small number of internet users and turns them into activists and organizers,  And unlike al-Jazeera, no one is paying the bloggers and activists who use the internet to mobilize. It's a substantive improvement over what al-Jazeera does, especially because the internet is not controlled by a government.

The second point is dead on:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

Feeding both the jailer and the prisoner is not a sustainable or sensible policy. I would not be surprised if some wise-guy young Arab soon sends a tweet to Hillary Clinton saying, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the security state.”

This is an awkward and untenable position for any foreign government that wants to promote political activism and pluralism in the Middle East. It damages Western government credibility, leads to no significant changes in our political cultures, and often discredits the local activists who become tarred with the charge of being Western lackeys.

Clinton's Internet Initiative is essentially a substitute — and a poor one at that — for a real policy to deal with authoritarian regimes. As was Obama's Cairo speech and its 16 micro-initiatives. You don't have to invade dictatorships — please! — but you don't have to support them either. Training young people to use the internet is a ridiculous idea — they will do so anyway.  

Better to learn from the largely American success of internet start-ups such as Google: don't be evil. Cut off the funding to dictators, occupiers and regimes that carry out ethnic or religious segregation. Refuse to meet them and give them the recognition they crave. Stop humoring them because of your imperial ambitions in the Middle East — these ambitions are ruinous to America both financially and morally.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Once again, Bush nostalgia

Oh, come on Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for God's sake:

When a billboard appeared outside a small Minnesota town early this year showing a picture of George W. Bush and the words "Miss me yet?" the irony was not lost on many in the Arab world. Most Americans may not miss Bush, but a growing number of people in the Middle East do. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unpopular in the region, but his ardent support for democracy was heartening to Arabs living under stalled autocracies. Reform activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and elsewhere felt empowered to press for greater freedoms during the Bush years. Unfortunately, Bush's strong support for democracy contrasts sharply with President Obama's retreat on this critical issue.

I understand Dr. Ibrahim has reasons to be grateful towards George W. Bush, who forcefully pressured the Egyptian government to release him when he was on trial in 2002-03. But he should remember that Bush's support evaporated in January 2006 after Hamas' electoral victory (and the Muslim Brothers' electoral advance in Egypt). What reform activists in Lebanon — surely this should be "March 14 partisans", who for the most part did not seem very interested in democratic reform and are quite committed to Lebanon's twisted sectarian system, even if they rightly opposed Syrian interference in their own affairs. More reform activists in Egypt were anti-Bush. I could go on about "reform activists."

Also, no need to cite elections over 2005-06 as proof of reform. Egypt's were deeply flawed. The CIA funded Fatah's campaign in Palestine. Most of these elections were already scheduled — Bush did not order them to be held! There are other problems with the piece, but I'll stop here on the details. Ibrahim concludes:

Democracy and human rights advocates in the Middle East listened with great anticipation to Obama's speech in Cairo. Today, Egyptians are not just disappointed but stunned by what appears to be outright promotion of autocracy in their country. What is needed now is a loud and clear message from the United States and the global community of democracies that the Egyptian people deserve free, fair and transparent elections. Congress is considering a resolution to that effect for Uganda. Such a resolution for Egypt is critical given the immense U.S. support for Egypt. Just as we hope for a clear U.S. signal on democracy promotion, we must hope that the Obama administration will cease its coddling of dictators.

This is ill thought out. Obama has actually this year taken a few steps towards pressuring Egypt.

1. The US expressed disappointment over the renewal of the Emergency Law in May, which is more than the EU, which unbelievably put out the following crap under French and Italian pressure:

"I note Egypt's decision to limit the new State of Emergency to fighting terrorism and its financing and drug-related crimes. However, I strongly encourage the government to speed up the steps needed for the adoption of an antiterrorism law compliant with international human rights standards as soon as possible, noting the government's commitment to this goal in the EU/Egypt Action plan and in other forums".

"Note"? As in, "I note you're not wearing glasses today"? Pathetic.

2. Vice President Joe Biden raised the UNHCR's Universal Periodic Review of Egypt with Mubarak. At least there's a sign they're talking about it.

3. The State Dept. has called for an investigation into the death of Khaled Said. The day after that, a new investigation was ordered.

Bottom line: there's been a slight improvement since last year, but it could go much further. Rather than aping a Congressional resolution on Uganda Ibrahim could have called for specific measures, such as: the imposition of conditionalities for the disbursement of aid and the negotiation of any endowment for Egypt, sending messages that arms sales are conditional on freer elections after the disaster of the recent Shura Council elections, and holding to the Egyptian government to account on its claim that the Emegency Law will only be used in drug and terrorism cases. 

Ibrahim had a chance at making a much stronger case with specific recommendations. Claims of "Bush nostalgia" won't win friends in the Obama administration — just among the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial board.

Michael Posner, Egypt and human rights

"Listen to the hand"

Those of you who monitor US democracy promotion efforts in Egypt — you know who you are — will have noticed that 2009 was eerily quiet in Washington when it came to that issue. Apart from the odd WaPo editorial taking the administration to task (as well as US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey) for not uttering a word about the Egyptian regime's misdeeds, and analysts such as Carnegie's Michele Dunne and organizations liked POMED fighting the fight to keep the issue alive at all, you never heard anything coming from the State Department or the White House. Until a few days ago, that is.

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USAID re-examined

POMED writes in its invaluable Monday briefing, so that I don't have to:

Thomas Carothers has released an important new report, "Revitalizing Democracy Assistance: The Challenge of USAID" that explores needed reforms in foreign democracy assistance. The report recommends three key reforms: decreasing bureaucratization, bolstering local ownership of projects, and strengthening the institutional emphasis of democracy promotion within USAID. The report concludes "a successful revitalization of USAID's democracy and governance work would be a telling signal that the Obama administration is forging significant institutional changes that will help the United States meet the serious challenges that democracy's uncertain global fortunes now pose."

Also last week, the USAID Office of the Inspector General released a fascinating new report, "Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities."  The report is quite critical of the effectiveness of USAID's democracy and governance programs in Egypt, and concludes that, "A major contributing factor to the limited achievements for some of these programs resulted from a lack of support from the Government of Egypt. According to a mission official, the Government of Egypt has resisted USAID/Egypt's democracy and governance program and has suspended the activities of many U.S. NGOs because Egyptian officials thought these organizations were too aggressive."

Carothers is perhaps the greatest American expert on democracy promotion, and I read the USAID Inspector General's report, which is scathing. So much money has been wasted on democracy promotion in Egypt, partly because of the Egyptian government's obstructionism, but also because so many programs were ill-conceived.

Now we just have to wait for a head of USAID to actually be appointed -- and for US democracy-promotion policy not to run so much at odd with its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

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Links for 09.14.09

Unsettled - Resolve of West Bank Settlers May Have Limits - Series - NYTimes.com | NYT describes Israeli settlers as "the nation's moral core." For once I agree. ✪ Islamists and the Grave Bell | Greg Gause: "So a revival of democracy promotion in Washington requires the underlying assumption that Islamists will not win Middle Eastern election." Well in that case let's put the whole democracy promotion idea to sleep, and instead develop a concept of autocracy obstruction. ✪ Political storm clouds form over Turkey | The Smirking Chimp | Interesting post on deep state anti-Islamist group in Turkey. ✪ الصفحة الرئيسية | Arabic ebooks. ✪ Egyptian chronicles: Welcome To The Egyptian Publishing Hell | Good post on the problems with copyright, literary publishing and censorship in Egypt.
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Links for 08.04.09 to 08.06.09

Iran is the problem, not settlements: US lawmaker (AFP) | Slimy Republican sings from Bibi's songbook. Most Taliban fighters 'could switch' | From Windows to Mac? Where Have All the Palestinian Moderates Gone? | Read this obscene article by Israel lobby stooge David Schenker (and many others like it from WINEP): it makes a compelling argument that people from this institution should never be regarded as serious analysts or scholars, but as propagandists. The guy talks about Fatah reserving the right to armed resistannce - i.e. self-defense from a brutal occupation - but never once mentions occupation. Whither Fateh? | Palestine | On the inner rifts of the Palestinian faction - quite good. Middle East Democracy (404 Not Found) | Priceless. Al-Ahram Weekly | Focus | Business interests | Hossam Tammam on the Muslim Brothers' economic policy.
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Links for 07.31.09

allAfrica.com: Egypt: Bloggers Fly Into Security Trap (Page 1 of 1) | On the recent spate of arrests of bloggers at Cairo Airport. Makes you think, did they get a new computer system or what? Grading places - The National Newspaper | Marc Lynch on AHDR 2009: I don't get what all the debate is about. The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2010: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East | Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) | Well-researched report on US democracy promotion spending in the Middle East. From the inside - The National Newspaper | Iason Athanasiadis on his ordeal in Iran. EGYPT: Coptic pope likes president's son | Babylon & Beyond | Los Angeles Times | Shenouda yet again says he supports Gamal Mubarak presidency.
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Obama’s visit is dividing Egyptians - The National Newspaper

Obama’s visit is dividing Egyptians - The National Newspaper
“We can’t deny our shock from Obama’s planned visit to Egypt,” said Abdel Halim Qandil, the spokesman for Kefaya, an opposition group. “When he comes to Cairo, he will be Mubarak’s, not the Egyptian people’s, guest. This visit will have a negative impact on Obama’s image, who is popular in Egypt.” But some other quotes in there are supportive.
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Clinton Meets With Egyptian Foreign Minister, Democracy Activist

Clinton Meets With Egyptian Foreign Minister, Democracy Activist
Who was the activist? "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be meeting today with Egypt’s foreign minister. In the afternoon, she will meet with a democracy activist at the State Department. A spokesman for the department was not aware of the activist’s identity or the agenda for the meeting."
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