As the Obama administration keeps up the pressure on Hosni Mubarak to make good on his promises of reform, there is no shortage of advice on how the US should respond to the turmoil in Egypt, Tunisia and the wider Arab world.
Nobody seems impressed by Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman, the government’s intelligence chief, as vice president, his first deputy in 30 years’ rule.
“The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat,” a State Department spokesman said. “President Mubarak’s words pledging reform must be followed by action.”
Obama held a rare Saturday meeting with senior advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser, Tom Donilon, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Margaret Scobey, US ambassador to Egypt, participating by teleconference.
“He [Obama] reiterated our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, and supporting concrete steps that advance political reform,” according to a White House statement.
A role for external actors?
The administration’s initial response to the Egyptian uprising was disappointing, “but not surprising,” writes Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center. But it can redeem itself by using the huge economic and military aid to Cairo as leverage, and by actively promoting democratic institutions and processes.
“No one should underestimate the crucial role of international actors,” he writes. “Rarely do successful democratic transitions occur without constructive engagement from Western governments and organizations.”
But others suggest that perceived US complicity in sustaining Arab authoritarianism justifies a less engaged approach.
“The popular uprisings across the Arab world go beyond ideology and religion,” argues Emad Shahin, associate professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame. “They are about freedom, social justice and democracy.”
The US represents such values, but its strategy of supporting repressive rulers and denying Arab citizens their rights for fear of an Islamist takeover has damaged US credibility as an agent of democracy.
“The best thing the United States can do now is to back off and let the peoples of the region chart their own course,” he concludes.
To the contrary, says Sherif Mansour. The only lesson US policymakers should take from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt is that freedom matters, and the administration should devise a package of carrots and sticks to restore its reputation in the region and pressure Cairo to reform.
“It should freeze its foreign-aid package to Egypt until a more just, transparent, and accountable government is in place,” writes Mansour, senior programs officer at Freedom House, and offer “help in building democratic institutions while refraining from endorsing any particular candidate or party.”
It’s about freedom – but bread too
Amr Hamzawy puts his finger on perhaps the most promising development emerging from the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt:
Another distinguishing factor was the purely domestic nature of the demands that drove the protests. The repetitive and ambiguous denunciations of globalism, Zionism and U.S. policy in the Middle East were nowhere to be heard. Similarly absent was the ideological context in which Egypt’s political and public space is typically framed.
Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution “effectively turned Arabs’ priorities from the banal rhetoric and distractions on regional politics toward pressing socioeconomic issues affecting daily life,” he writes.
Promising indicators, albeit yet to be definitively confirmed. But if democratic forces can develop a program centered on the material needs of the majority, rather than the ideological and constitutional obsessions of the Islamists and metropolitan liberal elites respectively, the prospects for the region will improve dramatically.
Most of Egypt’s protesters “are motivated by their economic and social suffering,” writes Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
But can the fragmented democratic camp get into a position from where it is able to address such needs and begin to build the mass base that Arab liberals so conspicuously lack?
Egypt’s opposition is divided into the weak traditional political parties and new groups, including the April 6th movement and Mohamed ElBaradei’s supporters, which have been “the locomotive” of the current upsurge.
“If a consensus can be reached between the two camps to work behind ElBaradei as a feasible leader for a transition to democracy in Egypt that would be a substantive break through,” Hassan argues.
Can Islamists embrace democratic pluralism?
The unity of democratic forces will be vital in sustaining a viable transition and in combating rival authoritarian forces, but it should be broad enough to include reformed Islamists, Dan Brumberg suggests.
“Egypt’s mass protests have revealed a new social landscape … defined by an alliance of angry youth whose political identities cannot be reduced to religion or faith – one that could help turn a popular rebellion into a democratic revolution,” he writes.
He doesn’t buy the notion that Arab politics has entered a ‘post-Islamist’ phase as some have argued since Tunisia’s markedly secular revolution. But the aspiration of Egypt’s urban middle class youth to reconcile Islamist and secular identities and agendas presents an opportunity to broaden the forces for reform, giving Islamists an incentive “to set aside the ambiguities that characterize their ideologies, and in so doing, fully embrace the premises and rules of democratic pluralism.”
The Mubarak regime is in a crisis, but it need not be terminal if the protests “serve as a final, indigenous wakeup call” to a government that has regressed on the political openings of 2005, write The Washington Institute‘s J. Scott Carpenter and David Schenker.
The Obama administration should encourage the government to move rapidly on a package of reforms:
Cairo should permit the largely non-Islamist labor unions to operate freely, end harassment of Egypt’s largely secular parties, and allow new parties to form. Similarly, the steps it has taken against free media and the independent judiciary should be reversed.
“What happened on the streets of Cairo was not a bread riot but a legitimacy riot,” writes Andrew Albertson, former executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
“The best guarantee of stability is participation, pluralism and progress,” he says.
The US can help the region’s people realize the humble aspiration to be active citizens, instead of passive subjects, by pressuring its allies to allow broader political participation, initiate broad dialogues, and ensure transparent and effective governance.
Mubarak willfully ignored the Bush administration’s pleas to allow civil society and non-Islamist political parties to flourish, argues Stephen Hadley.
“Sadly, instead of fostering them, it oppressed them,” he notes, allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge as the only alternative to the regime. But Mubarak now faces a stark choice.
Will he seek to transfer power to another authoritarian strongman or midwife a transition to democracy? Will he encourage the civil society and non-Islamist political parties that could give the Egyptian people real choices for a democratic future?
“The administration has an extraordinary opportunity to reinvigorate support for democratic reform in the Arab world,” writes Steve Heydemann, vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace and special adviser to its Muslim World Initiative. And it can do so in a way that reconciles ideals and interests:
The United States can help the region’s transition to democracy by acknowledging the depth of anger among Arab publics, making explicit the link between U.S. interests and the legitimacy of regimes, and communicating forcefully to our Arab allies that current governments will not overcome the crisis of legitimacy that is driving their citizens into the streets without fundamental political transformation – through processes that are themselves democratic, peaceful and inclusive.
This approach does not require the US to isolate or abandon its allies, “but it would signal clearly that American interests and Arab democracy are now, finally, aligned.”