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Egypt: Democracy For Me But Not For Thee

January 29, 2011

As I watch some of the coverage of what is going on in Egypt it’s interesting to see that some of the biggest supporters of “democracy” and “freedom” have now decided that maybe democracy isn’t such a good thing. At least not when it comes to Arabs.

It’s a rehashing of the theme of ‘Fear of a Muslim Planet’ and quite a few commentators I have seen or heard or read are now offering us all a false choice between a corrupt, oppressive dictatorship in Egypt and crazy, America-hating Islamists, as though there is nothing in between those two things. This is interesting because thus far the protesters in Egypt seem concerned with things like food prices, unemployment, repression, government corruption and nepotism, etc. as opposed to promoting Islamic fundamentalism. We’ve heard a lot about the Muslim Brotherhood in the media over the last two days and while I think that discussing any role they play in these protests or their aftermath is certainly very important, a lot of the commentary seems to be hyping a threat that really hasn’t manifested itself, at least as of yet.

That’s not to say that the Brotherhood couldn’t step in to fill the power vacuum, but again, the only choice isn’t necessarily dictatorship or Jihad. In fact, it’s that exact rationale that Mubarak himself has used to justify his almost 30 year reign- he argued he alone could protect Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and his police state tactics were justified to keep them at bay. Of course whether that is true is now the matter of some debate.

Sometimes I think we don’t give the so-called ‘Arab Street’ much credit. After all, they are human beings and not everything is about us (or Israel). It could be that they just want what most of us want- freedom, justice, a good life for their families, employment, educational opportunities and a sense of having some voice in their government. It’s not always about spreading a violent form of Islam.

It’s rather surprising to listen to some people just openly state that democracy is only acceptable or supportable if we approve of those who end up in power. Now that several days has gone by, more and more conservatives are stepping up to register their concerns about the potential for a democratic Middle East. Here are just a few below.

First up is neocon John Bolton [via Think Progress]:

During the Bush years, one of the justifications the administration most relied on for many of its policies in the world was that it was engaging in “democracy promotion.” One of the most vocal members about this supposed cause was Bush administration U.N. ambassador John Bolton.


Yet during an interview with right-wing radio host Mark Levin yesterday, Bolton used his time on the show to attack and undermine the pro-democracy protest movement currently underway in Egypt. The former U.N. ambassador claimed that the “real alternative” to the Mubarak government is not “Jeffersonian democracy” but rather the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. After Levin postulated that “every Jihadi nutjob is probably pouring into Egypt right now,” Bolton followed up by saying this is the “big opportunity” for jihadists and mocked the calls of the international community to restore internet services, saying that the “Muslim Brotherhood knows how to use Twitter just like naive college students do”:

LEVIN: So what do you make with what’s going on in Egypt right now?

BOLTON: Well, I think it’s a real crisis for the regime. I think the outpourings in the street that have now been joined by the Muslim Brotherhood really do put the issue squarely on the table […] My take is that they are digging in for a fight, they intend to resist, and that the real alternative is not Jefferson democracy versus the Mubarak regime, but that it’s the Muslim Brotherhood versus the Mubarak regime, and that has enormous implications for the U.S., for Israel, and our other friends in the region.

LEVIN: See, that’s my take on it too. I’m not aware of these spontaneous Jeffersonian democracy drives in the Arab world. Maybe I could be missing something. Mike Ledeen makes the point, I think he’s right, that every Jihadi nutjob is probably pouring into Egypt right now.

BOLTON: Oh, this is the big opportunity. That’s why so much of the Obama administration opposition to it has been feckless. […] And the Muslim Brotherhood knows how to use Twitter just like naive college students do. So I don’t disagree. There are a lot of people in the streets who have legitimate grievances, they want more open government, so even if Mubarak were to fall, those idealistic people aren’t going to create the new government, the Brotherhood is…
[emphasis added]

As I write this, CNN’s Situation with Wolf Blitzer has the provocative headline running across the screen: “Where Does Al Qaeda fit in all of this” despite the fact that their own security analyst Peter Bergen just said that Al Qaeda doesn’t enter into the equation at all. Baseless fear-mongering.

And then there is GOP Conference Chair Thaddeus McCotter opining that the US must stand by Mubarak:

Now, yet another high-profile Republican is disparaging the protest movement and openly siding with Egypt’s dictator. In a statement posted on his website last night, GOP Conference Chair Rep. Thaddeus McCotter wrote that “the Egyptian demonstrations are not the equivalent of Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution” and that “America must stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform.” He even went as far as to say that “freedom’s radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt” with the demonstrations:

“The Egyptian demonstrations are not the equivalent of Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. The Egyptian demonstrations are the reprise of Iran’s 1979 radical revolution.

“Thus, America must stand with her ally Egypt to preserve an imperfect government capable of reform; and prevent a tyrannical government capable of harm. […]

“This is not a nostalgic “anti-colonial uprising” from within, of all places, the land of Nassar. Right now, freedom’s radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt and other our allies.

Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute also seems to think a freedom agenda is ok but maybe not in Egypt:

…That is to say, we don’t know exactly what the protestors want. There are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel. No doubt some of the young are just fed up they have never known another Egyptian ruler in their lifetimes. Some of the youth are democrats and others are decidedly not.

It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms. Perhaps it is an appetite for activist politics that explains why so many Western observers are now captured by the moment. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why it seems as if no one had learned from the failures of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda—namely the Palestinian Authority elections that empowered Hamas—or could remember its successes. The Iraqis and Lebanese went to the streets, too, and our allies there are under pressure and ignored not only by the Obama administration, but also by a press corps and intelligentsia that mostly seems just fascinated by the spectacle of Arabs throwing themselves against a wall, regardless of the outcome.[emphasis added]

Notice the subtle condescension (“fascinated by the spectacle of Arabs throwing themselves against a wall…”) and also the unfounded fear-mongering when he says “there are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel…” Now correct me if I am wrong but I haven’t seen or heard a single protester in the streets complaining that the real problem with Mubarak is he didn’t wage war with Israel.

And then there is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic questioning whether dictatorship is really such a bad thing after all:

Is that such a bad thing? Friends of mine like Reuel Gerecht believe that Arabs, given their druthers, might choose Islamist governments, and that would be okay, because it’s part of a long-term process of gradual modernization. I’m not so sure. I support democratization, but the democratization we saw in Gaza (courtesy of, among others, Condi Rice) doesn’t seem particularly worth it.

Worth it for who Jeffrey? YOU? Jesus.

The difficult aspect of democracy is that implicit in it is the ever-present chance that free people may choose leaders whom we don’t like or with whom we disagree. But the notion that democracy is only acceptable if the U.S. has a hand in determining the outcome is not sustainable as a key principle of foreign policy and it may actually harm our security interests in the long run and what we are seeing in Egypt may be exhibit A.

For my earlier post on today’s events in Egypt, see here.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    January 29, 2011 7:27 pm

    Excellent post!

    Blitzer is an idiot. Honestly, no wonder CNN’s ratings are in the crapper. Watching him is about as informative as watching paint dry.

    Your blogging and tweeting today is much appreciated Stacy! And again, thanks for the heads up about Hillary being all over the Sunday talk shows tomorrow.

  2. discourseincsharpminor permalink
    January 29, 2011 7:35 pm

    The idea that there are people undeserving of the ability to have a free and democratic unless we make the decision some leader or other should be deposed is the the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, and irrational fear. The idea that every muslim in the world who is unhappy about anything in their lives at the moment is a potential jihadist is completely unfounded to put it mildly. The reports I’ve been seeing haven’t showed bearded men chanting “Death to America”. I have seen a lot of you people – clean shaven men mixing freely with women in the crowds – speaking to reporters about jobs, freedom, and opportunity. If we can’t accept that A) not everything is all about America, and B) every angry muslim is not necessarily angry at western civilization, we will create a problem where there currently doesn’t seem to be one right now.

  3. Thain permalink
    January 29, 2011 8:20 pm

    You rock Stacy. Thanks for this post.

    I really get the sense that a lot of people here in the US had no idea before all this happened that Mubarak was a dictator, that he received so much aid basically as a pay off for signing a peace treaty with Israel and being a secular leader. Bibi is saying all this upheaval proves the region is too unstable for peace but actually it shows just how much the Lobby and the Israeli hardliners have f*cked up over the past decade. Had the US been an objective mediator and accepted some of the Palestinians concessions Israel might have peace treaties now with quite a few more Arab states and it might not be such a disaster for them if Mubarak fell.

    If I were Hillary I’d get on the phone pretty soon and tell Bibi it’s more important than ever that Israel get serious about peace with the Palestinians. I have to admit though I’ve lost faith in our govt when it comes to I-P conflict. The Palestine Papers killed whatever faith I had left that this admin. would be different and actually be willing to be fair. Turns out this admin. was WORSE than the Bush admin. Hillary and Obama need more objective people on their team of advisers- they need to stop surrounding themselves with people from AIPAC, WINEP and CFR and start getting some people who are serious about being mediators as opposed to Israel’s lawyers. How about having some Palestinian Americans as advisers? They certainly have quite a few people with US-Israel dual citizenship but for some reason that’s not seen as any sort of conflict of interest.

    • ladoga permalink
      January 30, 2011 10:19 am

      I really get the sense that a lot of people here in the US had no idea before all this happened that Mubarak was a dictator…

      Come on, this guy has been in power for 30 years, public protests are forbidden in law, constitution suspended, thousands thrown in jail and tortured, his son is planned to be the next dictator.

      Has US media been silent about all this while goverment has been giving billions of taxpayers money to Mubarak?

    • January 30, 2011 11:57 am

      There are so many Americans who hardly know who their senators are and enjoy ignorance on international affairs; the media shows their incredible bias since perhaps the 1970s; and many Americans have known dimly that Mubarak is a dictator and that we give him aid, but they didn’t want to learn more. It is sometimes easier to be ignorant if you are satisfied with the global status quo (when your country is at the head)…

      For the US media and politicians to pontificate about how some countries are not ready for democracy (and by the way, they’re all Muslim), shows the world (as did WikiLeaks and the Palestine Papers) how irrelevant the US is becoming to the evolving state of world affairs. We are only harming our country’s own future by clinging to dreams that we can dominate the world.

  4. January 30, 2011 1:43 am

    Stacy, thank you for this post! It’s brilliant–you said everything I’ve been thinking watching the coverage.

  5. January 30, 2011 2:01 am

    Stacy: in the comments of another one of your posts I noticed some discussion of the (non?)visibility of women in the Egyptian protests. You and your readers may find this of interest — it’s a facebook page of photos of the Women of Egypt.

    • January 30, 2011 2:16 am

      also saw this on twitter… Sannri RT @raljowder: #Egyptian women announcing: they will lead the demo today as men were protecting them at night and need to rest #Egypt #Jan25

    • January 30, 2011 4:19 am

      Thanks Wonk!

  6. Tovah permalink
    January 30, 2011 8:35 am

    This is a great post Stacy. I’ve been wondering about some of this too. It’s not like people are burning Israeli or American flags in the street. In fact, I saw a clip of young protesters chanting down the Muslim Brotherhood with a chant of their own something like “Muslims, Christians we are all Egyptians.” My understanding is that many in Egypt don’t WANT the Muslim Brotherhood.

    I think with all the Islamaphobia in the US, a lot of people are getting the wrong idea.

    I read something from Laura Rozen that said one of the reasons the administration came out rather slowly in support of the protesters is because Israel was worried. More and more Americans are going to see how Israel’s narrow interests tend to dominate our foreign policy. I never thought I would say that, but I have begun to see the light, thanks to learning more about the issue here and on other blogs and from Israeli media.

  7. August 23, 2013 7:00 pm

    super interesting


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