Change Egyptians Can Beleive in
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law
The political uprising in Egypt has given many of us reason for hope in the power of angry citizens to demand accountability and democratic change in government. While the Egyptian protests bode well for the future of democracy, some worry that a new government will favor Islamic radicalism and be less friendly to America’s goals. In a 2009 hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, General Petraeus called President Mubarak’s regime a “stabilizing influence in the Middle East,” and endorsed U.S. aid as “a critical reinforcement to the Egyptian Government,” saying it helps “prevent the spread of Gaza’s instability into Egypt and beyond.” But we should not defensively cling to the status quo out of fear of the Egyptian protests. In fact, they should be seen as a stinging rebuke of American support for autocratic leaders and a call to renew American support for democracy and human rights.
Over the last century, U.S. foreign policy has embraced autocratic, anti-democratic leaders in exchange for these leaders’ promises of “stability” and access to resources. In the long term, this strategy has been counterproductive. In 1953, for example, President Eisenhower approved a plot to replace elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh with the U.S.-friendly Shah in response to Mossadegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves. As UC Irvine Professor of History Mark LeVine recently noted, “[America’s support for the Shah] certainly played an important role in the rise of a militantly anti-American government social force, with disastrous results.” America’s decision to back the Shah led to increasing anti-American sentiment among Iranian revolutionaries and helped bona fide America-hater Ayatollah Khomenei take power.
Other examples of U.S. failure to support democracy abound. Fearing post-revolution Iran’s power, we supported autocrat Saddam Hussein and turned a blind eye to his use of American-made chemical weapons against the Iranian military and Iraqi Shiites. We stood by while our Pakistani “ally,” Pervez Musharraf, sent 30,000 troops to destroy anti-Taliban reformer Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan. We later cooperated with the Taliban in the belief that the stability of their regime would allow American interests to control Afghanistan’s strategic location. At the same time, we supported Musharraf’s corrupt military rule in Pakistan in return for his shaky support of U.S.’s “War on Terror.” We rejected the Palestinian’s democratic election of Hamas in 2006, preferring the corrupt, yet allegedly “stable” and U.S.-friendly Fatah government. Exceptionally, we have supported Israeli democracy even when their elected governments have stubbornly opposed our foreign policy goals. Unfortunately, our unqualified support has also facilitated Israel’s continued denial of self-determination to the stateless Palestinians.
America still works closely with autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Equatorial Guinea, and Turkmenistan. Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and an operations base for U.S. counter-“terror” and anti-piracy operations, has been the site of protests bycitizens energized by President Mubarak’s fall in Egypt. We have recently supported King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, turning a blind eye to his repression of a potentially pro-Iranian Shiite majority. On February 17, his soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing at least five civilians. In countries such as Bahrain, conditioning future aid on leaders’ respect for peaceful protests and recognition of basic human rights would show our continued commitment to historically American values.
New democratic movements in the Middle East offer opportunities to renew a commitment to democracy, equality, and human rights. Obama should use the events in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere as a chance to show that we will deal honestly with democratic governments that do not share all of our political or economic goals. Hopefully, it is not too late for America to convince Egyptians of the sincerity of our belief in democracy.
Obama took cautious steps to distance himself from Mubarak before the Egyptian leader stepped down, but stronger steps may be necessary to display a real commitment to “change” in countries where we bear some responsibility for entrenched dictatorships. Obama needs to recognize America’s role in Mubarak’s regime, and make it clear that we will support a new elected government. To do so will mean accepting an Egyptian government that is more “Islamic” and less friendly to traditional American economic and strategic interests in the Middle East. However, it is important to remember that extremists across the Middle East frequently build their support on popular anger at America’s perceived failure to support real democracy and equality in the region. The extent to which Egyptians are aware of strong U.S. support for democracy will determine their willingness to reject anti-American extremism at the ballot box.