Rice on stability

I just read the very interesting interview (transcript) the Washington Post did with Condoleeza Rice. There are three issues I want to highlight in it, but I'll post each separately. The first is about Egypt. For about a quarter century, the primary objective of the Mubarak regime and its most important claim to both international and domestic legitimacy has been that it has delivered stability. Stability is Mubarak's mantra and his raison d'etre. For a long time, that was one of the main reason Egypt was an important US ally. For a while now there has been a lot of talk about how the neo-con plan for the Middle East changes all that, but it hadn't really been applied towards Cairo. I wonder if that is beginning to change:

Rice, in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, said she was guided less by a fear that Islamic extremists would replace authoritarian governments than by a "strong certainty that the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway." Extremism, she said, is rooted in the "absence of other channels for political activity," and so "when you know that the status quo is no longer defensible, then you have to be willing to move in another direction."

For more details, the transcript has the following:

Q: All right let me ask you then, In these two countries do you hope that women are voting in any form of elections in Saudi Arabia within four years? Do you hope that Assad is out of power within four years? And Egypt, do you see want to see an election in which Mubarak has legitimate kind of competition as we do or as happens in any western country?

SECRETARY RICE: We've been very clear that we think that competitive presidential elections are to be desired. So yes, on competitive presidential elections. They will not look like American competitive presidential elections. I assume that American presidential elections are sui generis to this long history that we have. But that competitiveness is important, an important element of the democratic enterprise, in terms of women I hope they're voting everywhere.

In terms of who's in power and who's not in power, the issue isn't who's in power and who's not in power, it's are these places that are making steps towards reform and I just haven't seen anything in Syria yet that suggests that political reforms, as opposed to economic reforms where there's been some minor steps, is on the agenda in Syria.

Q: Is there any country in the region in which you worry about things progressing too rapidly, or what could happen if the lid came off too fast?

SECRETARY RICE: I really believe that once these things are in motion it is not possible to try and almost thermostat-like dial them up and back. They take on a life of their own.

Because I have a lot of faith in democratic institutions and their moderating effect, I'm probably less concerned that things will go too fast than that they there may be places where the institutional change cannot keep up with the demand for institutional change. Because once you have populations that are demanding change, once you have populations that are looking around – and one of the really remarkable impacts out there has been satellite TV where people watch Afghans vote or they watch Iraqis vote or they watch the Lebanese in the streets or they watch as far away as Ukraine or Georgia, today Kyrgyzstan – and they say "well, why not us?"

Q: So you're not concerned about a rapid rise of Islamic fundamentatalism in many of these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia or even as Iraq that started out?

SECRETARY RICE: Oh sure. Nobody wants to see the rise of greater fundamentalism or greater – let me use extremism. But it is really as opposed to what at this point? It isn't as if the status quo was stable the way that it was. What we really learned on September 11 as you really started to look underneath what was going on there, is that the Middle East is a place that's badly in need of change, that some of these malignancies that are represented by the rise of extremism have their roots in the absence of other channels for political activity or social activity or the desire for change, and when you recognize that – and there are some who recognized it well before we did – but when you recognize that you can say, all right well now I'll try and design the perfect counter to that. Or you can say, the United States is not going to be able to design the perfect counter to that; the only thing the United States can do is to speak out for the values that have been absent, liberty and freedom there, and it will have to take its own course.

And then you have to have some confidence that democratic institutions and people's desire not to live in violence and not to be kind of constantly sending their children off to be suicide bombers, is going to have a moderating effect on the region.

Can we be certain of that? No. But do I think there's a strong certainty that the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway? Yes. And when you know that the status quo is no longer defensible, then you have to be willing to move in another direction.

I also think there's some argument to be made that America's association with the freedom deficit was a problem for the United States in the region. There are now all kinds of studies of this that people said well, you talk about democracy in Latin America, you talk about democracy in Europe, you talk about democracy in Asia and Africa but you never talk about democracy in the Middle East.

And, of course, they were right because this was the decision that stability trumped everything, and what we were getting was neither stability nor democracy.

So what's the point of all this? Beyond the philosophical premise that such a foreign policy is based on, I am intrigued by how assured Rice is that "the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway" at least where countries like Egypt, which have been largely stable, are concerned. I also wonder how far the administration will go in this direction, not only in pressuring Mubarak over the forthcoming elections (or pressuring him to step down, which has been rumored as one cause why Mubarak is not going to Washington this year), but making a public case for more reforms in Egypt. Would they accept the reforms Mubarak has announced so far (fairly limited ones on how the president is elected, promises of future constitutional changes, appointing a vice-president) or is the aim something stronger; i.e. removing Mubarak and perhaps encouraging a strong but "reformist" leader (Omar Suleiman?) to carry out a transition to a Turkey-style system where the military remains ultimately in control but less directly involved in government? And how should we interpret the recent statements on the Nour case and the cancellation of Mubarak's trip to Egypt (assuming it was cancelled on the US side, which is far from certain) in this light?

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.