Rice on Egypt, regional democracy

Condoleeza Rice gave a roundtable interview to Arab journalists before leavng on her tour of the region. Most of it was about Hamas and Iran, but I thought her response on Egypt's cancellation of municipal elections and the critique of the Bush administration's "Arab democratization" policy were interesting:

On Egypt, well, of course, we were disappointed that the elections were -- that municipal elections were postponed. And what -- the message that I will take to Egypt is that Egypt needs to stay on democratic course. It needs to keep pushing ahead on the democratic course, because it is a great civilization and a great people and it can lead the democratic progress in the Arab world and I would hope that it will do that.

I will note that an awful lot has happened in Egypt in the last year too. Multi-candidate elections and the parliamentary elections have forever changed the character of Egyptian politics, the face of Egyptian politics. The debate, the holding of government officials accountable, the requirement that people actually go out and campaign for the vote of the people, you're not going to ever put that back (inaudible).

And so, a lot has changed in Egypt as a result of decisions that the government took. The parliament itself has changed dramatically as a result and so, while we expected -- while we will continue to press for further change and for further reform, I think we will want to note and acknowledge that a lot has changed in Egypt and to keep pushing for those reforms to continue. I will meet with civil society and opposition groups while I'm in Egypt and look forward to doing that and to hearing their assessment of how to move forward. This is also a time when I hope that there is more that is going on in the way of the formation of political parties, parties that are non-sectarian, and that can cut across political groupings.

Let me take this opportunity to say something about what we've just been through, because I'm reading a lot in the papers these days about how -- "Well, you know, you made this mistake, you thought democracy could take hold in the Middle East, you supported elections and what have you done? You've supported elections that brought to power Islamists or extremists or in the case of Hamas, a group that you consider a terrorist group. Aren't you sorry that you supported these democratic processes?"

Absolutely not. It was the only thing to do. It was -- first of all, from the point of view of the United States, the only moral thing to do. The idea that somehow, it is better for people to lack the means and the chance to express themselves, that it's better to support that and to, therefore, support dictatorship or oppression or authoritarianism where people don't have a voice -- it's, I think, morally reprehensible. People have to have a way to express themselves or, if they don't have a legitimate way to express themselves, they express themselves through extremism.

Secondly, there is an assumption, somehow, that the Middle East was somehow a stable paradise; that the United States' policies disturbed, and if we had just not insisted on the overthrow of dictatorship in Iraq or that Syrian forces leave Lebanon or that the Palestinian people have an opportunity to express themselves, everything would have been fine. But of course, that's not the Middle East as it existed three or four years ago. The Middle East was a place that you had such a great freedom deficit that people were expressing themselves by flying airplanes into buildings. That was a lesson we had to learn, that the 60 years of turning our backs on democracy in the Middle East and favoring "stability" in the Middle East had given us neither stability nor democracy.

And the problem is that after 60 years, it's perhaps not surprising that civil society is not very strong. It's not surprising that parties that express the need for compromise, the need for overcoming differences are weak. Those parties have to be built and it's going to take a while to build them. And perhaps it's true that the most organized parties, in some cases -- they're the most organized entities, in some cases, were more extreme. But I firmly believe that this is a transitional matter, because in politics, you have to deliver for the people, particularly if you have to stand for election by the people, particularly if you have to stand for the people to reaffirm you in elections.

So, what the world community should do is not turn back from democracy in the Middle East; not say, "Oh, my goodness, we got a glimpse of democracy and it's rather scary what can happen with it." That's not the right approach. The right approach is to continue to encourage reform and democracy and openness, to work to establish parties that are moderate in their views, to work to establish civil society, to work to establish the institutions, to say to any who have been elected in these processes and comes from the extremes, "You now have a obligation, however, a responsibility, to work for the aspirations of your people. And your people, as far as we can see, don't want to turn their children into suicide bombers. They don't want to spend their lives trying to destroy Israel and therefore, living in circumstances as the Palestinians do."

And so, the international community has to stand firm for the principle that however you came to power by election, you have responsibilities and one of the responsibilities of democracy is that you cannot have one foot in terrorism and one foot in politics. And it has to be the international community that has to insist on that standard. Now, for anybody who gets into power through election, that's a standard we have to insist upon.

So, while we are building institutions of democracy, we can't let those who have been elected through democratic processes govern undemocratically. We cannot let those who have been elected to processes through democracy keep one foot in terror and one foot in politics.

But it would be a tragedy if we turned back from the insistence that people ought to have a right to choose their leaders. That would be a tragedy and it would be -- for those of us who are fortunate enough to live in countries where we have that right, I think it would be morally reprehensible for us to turn our backs on those who don't yet have that right.
Two things come to mind: one, is that although the US feels it needs to comment negatively on the cancellation of municipal elections, it is not dissatisfied with the decision. Why? Well, first of all because the response thus far has really been pretty weak -- probably mostly for PR reasons and to signal that the pressure is still on. But secondly, probably because Rice and her colleagues feel that enough already happened in 2005 and there's no reason to rush towards another Muslim Brotherhood electoral victory. The process they see happening in Egypt is probably more medium to long term and, peripherally, they probably hope that a delay could give opposition parties more time to prepare. I understand where this reasoning comes from, but I don't think the postponement of the municipal elections will actually make much difference either in the success Islamists will probably enjoy (now that the MB is clearly determined to contest them) or in the level of preparation opposition parties will be able to achieve. The problem is bigger than that, and without a major change to the current political culture it's hard to see anything happening.

The second thing is that despite many recent critiques, notably from inside the US, against the pro-democracy policies of the Bush administration, it is more or less staying on the same course, although maybe at a slower pace. The emphasis on civil society needed more growth is probably the focus of this policy for the moment (rather than elections). The same problem remains, though: how do you ensure that there is room for this growth?
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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.