James Traub on Democracy in Egypt

Question: What’s an example of the US being more restrained in promoting democracy?

James Traub: Take Egypt.  Now, the one place where you couldn’t say the Bush Administration made a real effort that is they did an unusual thing.  They said here is an ally of ours who we don’t want to lose as an ally, we need them as an ally, but we also recognize that our support for autocratic leaders in the Middle East has not been good for the people of the Middle East and then in the end it hasn’t been good for us either because now this whole world of terrorism has been spawned in part by a deeply felt sense of anger and despair in that part of the world, so we’ve got to push this guys.  Well, Mubarak, President Mubarak of Egypt seemed like the one most easily pushed because the Egyptians, we had a very close relationship with them.  Egypt does have a kind of a liberal middle-class-world-civil-society and so forth.  They were political opponents who are eager to have more freedom to act.  And so, first, Bush then Condi Rice then midlevel officials pushed the Egyptians very hard to have more fair election than they’ve had in the past, to not arrest political opponents, to allow demonstrations in the streets, to allow freedom of the press.  And it was as if they were trying to open this very, very tightly closed thing and they pulled it open away, and so, Egypt did have more free elections.  They did have all these new newspapers and magazines and radio stations and TV stations grow up.  It was an exciting moment in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.  But it turned out that thing that they pulled open a little bit was also had powerful impulses to close back up.  And so, when Mubarak saw that this election that he permitted was costing him that the opposition was doing really well above all the Islamic opposition, the Muslim brotherhood, he decided he couldn’t afford this.  And so, he sent his goons out into the street to beat people up to close down demonstrations, ultimately kill people 18, 19, 20 people were killed, I think almost all members of the Muslim brotherhood, and it was a savage and bloody and ugly, and to what have seemed like a noble experiment.  Now, the Bush Administration then was faced with a legal dilemma.  Do you say, all right, we can afford to push the guy, he’s our ally or do you say no, you know, in for a penny, in for a pound.  And they decided on the first course, they said we push him as far as we can, he called our bluff and we don’t really have a Plan B on this one.  And so The State Department said essentially nothing in response to this crackdown and that sent a clear signal to Mubarak that he was home free. And despite some public statements since then, that was kind of the end of the campaign.

James Traub offers Egypt as an example of how the US can quietly affect civil society.

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