The resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak marks a major turning point in the Middle East. His thirty-year rule provided a lynch-pin for both security and stagnation in the region. Mubarak supported peace with Israel, first negotiated by his predecessor Anwar Sadat, and he worked against the spread of religious extremism in the region. In return, Mubarak received billions of dollars and frequent accolades from American and European leaders.
At the same time, Mubarak’s dictatorship prohibited the emergence of a participatory, open, and forward-looking political system in Egypt. He did not rule as a totalitarian, but he did repress efforts at broadening the popular base for decision-making. His ruling class of hand-picked elites kept a lock on resources, privileges, and power. Egypt was a patronage state, manipulated by the dictator and protected by his foreign friends.
Sadly, the same can be said for most American and European allies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen are all the same. Pakistan is an extreme. They all have ruling figures who promise security and stagnation. Many other regimes in the region (including Iran, Syria, and Lebanon) suffer from the same ailment, fused to an anti-American ideology. Mubarak’s downfall offers an opportunity, already tentatively seized by protesters in other societies, to change this dynamic. It promises the possibility of participation, openness, and political innovation as never before in the last thirty years. It inspires hopes for a more humane society.
Many observers are frightened by this phenomenon. It creates uncertainty, instability, and dangers of uncontrolled violence. Mobilized crowds of young Islamic citizens reawaken painful memories of hatred, extremism, and warfare for Americans who remember the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis of 1978-79. The scars from that horrible experience have not healed. The terrorist incidents of the last decade have only reinforced the image of violent Muslim mobs. Israeli concerns about events in Egypt during the last two weeks have reflected this perspective.
Fears of popular change in the Middle East are understandable, but they are not appropriate for policy guidance at this particular moment. Egypt will never be the same after Mubarak, and Egypt’s neighbors will change too. Although popular movements rarely produce immediate democratic outcomes, they always create an opportunity for new groups of citizens to assert a stake in governing society. Often the window of opportunity for new political access is short-lived, but it offers real transformative opportunities, if seized effectively.
The United States and the European Union should encourage this process. Thomas Jefferson’s wisdom is worth quoting in this regard: “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical…It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Jefferson recognized that stagnant authoritarian governments could only become true anchors of peace and prosperity if they re-made themselves as regimes run by the people. That could only happen with “a little rebellion” and a willingness to take some risks.
Americans and Europeans must recognize that they did not create this process, and they do not have any guarantees about the outcome. Egypt and its neighbors are likely to encounter many more moments of uncertainty, conflict, and probably violence too. Popular change will include its share of hatred, brutality, and extremism. Politics is a dirty business, especially at times of major transition.
The best position for Americans and Europeans to adopt is one of cautious support for advocates of inclusive and open representation in the region. Western governments and organizations should avoid simple policy litmus tests (“are they with us or against us?”) and advocate for a civil, humane, and effective process. President Barack Obama and his counterparts should emphasize more political debate in the Middle East, not less; more voices, not less; more efforts at negotiation and compromise among groups, not less. What the Middle East lacks is not strong opinions, but vibrant institutions and norms for broad consensus-building. Scholars have often called this “civil society.”
The United States and the European Union have a very poor track record of building popular support in the region for specific policies. Most often, the opposite has been the case – Western policies frequently inspire resentment and cynicism from Middle Easterners. In a context of uncertain but promising popular mobilization, American and European leaders must have the courage to abandon short-term policy aims and recognize the deeper purposes served by a set of processes that, in the long-run, create more inclusive, consensual, and humane politics.
What does this mean in practice? Americans and Europeans must invest less in people than in institutions – including a free press, open social media, and secular education. Foreign diplomats, businesspeople, and students in the region should do more to form durable and equal relationships with diverse local actors, including those who are skeptical of the West. Most important, the United States and the European Union must reward political inclusiveness in our aid programs, and penalize exclusion and repression. In this context, human rights are about civilized politics.
Events in Egypt have a lot to teach Western observers. Stagnant societies can change quickly. Repressed peoples can assert themselves in productive and promising ways. Foreigners have little control over this dynamic, but they can and should embrace it to encourage its best tendencies. There are no guarantees. A little cautious and targeted idealism is the best option.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.
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