Sunday, June 12, 2005

America's "Arab Democracy"

The put-upon camel of Egypt is weighed down by "knavery," "tyranny," "impecuniosity," "debt," etc.
"Messoo" says, "If you cannot lead him, mon cher, let me!" John Bull says, "No, thank ye. If I can't lead him, I'll ride him!!" Punch, 19 January, 1884. Reproduced from Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid, Egypt and Cromer: A Study in Anglo-Egyptian Relations (1968).

There’s been much chatter lately about what the Americans will or won’t do, should and shouldn’t do, ought and ought not to do, about democracy in the Arab world. The predictably strong electoral showing of Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine has rekindled speculation on how the Americans really view moderate Islamists, the Egyptian Ikhwan included. Will the Americans “accept” them? Will they work with them? Do they “trust” them? Writers at assorted American “think tanks” are issuing mounds of policy verbiage at an alarmingly quick rate, eager to affix their “intellectual” imprimatur to the American government’s foreign policy toward the Arab world (and perhaps coveting official employment). American writers (and the occasional British commentator) weigh in with their own recipes for how Arab democracy should proceed. The Arab Human Development Report is obsessively brandished (but not read) like a talisman, as if to say: see, even the Arabs themselves say they need democracy!

The current American debates about how much and in what ways the United States government ought to promote Arab democracy are simply the latest disputes between longstanding policy schools within the American foreign policy establishment. Each faction’s attempts to bolster its own credentials by including a few token Arabs or “Arabists” has more to do with winning the upper hand in the domestic debate than understanding or supporting Arab democratisation. Need it really be pointed out that real Arab democratisation means Arab citizens having a real say in every aspect of their lives, rather than submitting to new control projects masquerading as “curriculum and school reform,” “NGO capacity building”, “empowering women,” “modernising religious discourse,” “gradually opening up the political system,” “transparency and accountability,” and all the other euphemisms for continued government tutelage with American blessings? Above all, real Arab democratisation means the right to oppose U.S. and Arab government policies without being accused of anti-Americanism, recidivist Arab nationalism, Islamic “fundamentalism”, shrill whateverism, and generally being treated like a mental patient who only needs a good dose of American “public diplomacy” to make everything all better.

American Primacy

The whole debate about American democracy promotion is conducted for and by Americans, it matters little that some participants have Arab names. What’s at issue is not whether and how democracy has developed or will develop in the Arab world, or indeed anywhere, but which kind and how much democracy is acceptable to American interests. When official Americans and their advisers discuss Arab democracy, they are not observing nor reporting nor heeding Arab democracy debates, they’re engaged in their own heated exchanges about the best ways to preserve American national interests, even if they sprinkle their efforts with a quote from some “articulate” or “moderate” Arab here and there. As an unadjectived Arab democrat, I admire the intensity of the debate, but I’m under no illusions that it’s genuinely concerned with Arab democratisation.

This is a debate about what sort of “doctrine” American policy should adopt in its management of the Arab world. It is a debate in which Arabs are objects, problems, threats, inscrutable masses, sometimes self-appointed advisers and confidants, but never political agents with their own political projects and visions, projects that might include—horrors!—an end to American meddling in Arab affairs. Arabs are either dangerous terrorists, or intransigent ruling elites, or destabilising demagogues, or foaming-at-the-mouth nationalists, or power-hungry Islamists, or ambitious counter-elites, or submissive women, or wily women, or desperate immigrants, or hyperbolic alJazeera newscasters, or uppity intellectuals. Each requires a discrete and smart strategy of neutralisation, containment, or mobilisation, as the case may be. Arabs, it must be said, are still not allowed to have their own experiences, make their own choices, learn from their mistakes, and develop their own political institutions. Powerful foreign governments and their local subsidiaries are ever at the ready, making sure Arab citizens are bound in a straitjacket of tutelage.

There is decidedly no “partnership” here, much as the “Middle East Partnership Initiative” strains to coin ever more participatory rhetorical terms. Arabs ceased to be credible partners after the end of the 1973 war, when Anwar Sadat turned his personal conviction that “America controls 99% of the cards” into the ironclad foreign policy we’re living with today. Thus began the systematic diminution of Arab strategic horizons and interests, led by a defanged and demobilised Egypt under the management of two presidents who traded an independent foreign policy for American patronage and beneficence. The scourge of Arab nationalism now safely buried with the corpse of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian and then Moroccan, Jordanian, and Tunisian ruling elites struck separate “pragmatic” bargains with Israel and its patron. The contractual terms are clear: incremental but dogged normalisation with Israel in exchange for guarantees of regime survival under U.S. auspices, with judicious doses of domestic repression and economic promises meted out when opposition erupts. Regional strongmen who deviate from the script are either swiftly clobbered (Saddam Hussein) or theatrically surrender of their own pusillanimous accord (Mu’amar al-Qadhafi).

“Democracy promotion” was not invented by the George Bush administration; Clinton’s doctrine of “democratic enlargement” hinged on the export of “market capitalism” and American “values.” But in the case of the Arab world, it was never really about democracy. Sure, train a few judges here and there, “build the capacity” of Arab parliaments (which as far as I can tell means buying them nice computers), help Arab women come to Washington and be free by becoming avid capitalists, and teach “anger management” to those angry young Arab boys, but for God’s sake don’t tinker with the systematic disenfranchisement of Arab populations. If ruling elites can still deliver, then reward them handsomely while showing your bona fides by making noises about democracy and women’s empowerment.

George W. Bush’s Arab world policy picked up where Clinton left off, but added more aggressive democracy promotion rhetoric accompanied by military intervention. Troops, bombs, and tanks in Iraq (plus massive asset theft and privatisation) complement quieter methods of cultural transformation in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. The latter is essentially what MEPI is: a framework for transforming and improving those recalcitrant, angry Arabs into American-friendly, market-oriented, politically neutral consumers of American-made products. Arab ideologies and Arab political aspirations are problems that must be massaged through incremental but comprehensive identity change. MEPI goes hand in hand with something called “public diplomacy,” an intricate exercise in impression management. Public diplomacy has a simple guiding premise: to shift the focus from outrageous and reprehensible American policies to Arab “perceptions,” “attitudes,” “impressions” of America tout court. It shifts the issue from why and how Arab citizens are opposed to specific and tangible U.S. policies to how Arabs as a lumpen mass “hate” or “resent” America. It requires not that American policies be changed (heavens no), but that Arab “hearts and minds” be won over, by upgraded public relations devices such as “Hi” magazine, al-Hurra television station, Radio Sawa, and other tools of mass distraction. “Public diplomacy” is premised on not taking Arabs seriously.

Subverting Democracy

So I fail to see how the latest American rumpus about “Arab democracy” has anything to do with Arab democratisation, or how it addresses me and millions of other Arab democrats. It is simply competing lists of proposals and instructions for the Bush administration, aided and abetted by well-connected Arab petitioners who wish to see their interests and passions reflected in the superpower’s policies. I will not even begin to entertain that these petitioners are representative of any sort of constituency within the Arab world outside of a narrow set of ambitious counter-elites eager to claw their way into the seats of the incumbent autocrats. They are the Egyptian and Tunisian (and Syrian?) brethren of Kanan Makiya, Ahmed Chalabi, Eyad Allawi, Fouad Ajami: need I name more? If the U.S. administration (or factions therein) wishes to convince itself that the “independent” Arab individuals who whisper in its ears are representative of broader movements or social trends, that is its prerogative. But don’t ask others to believe the patently false and spurious.

Wherever there have been meddling “great powers” hell bent on reordering entire societies and engineering congenial political arrangements against popular will, ambitious flatterers and self-appointed “spokesmen” have followed suit. The only instance I can think of where private citizens transformed themselves into true national representatives with moral authority and political clarity was in inter-war India and Egypt. Barristers Mohandas Gandhi and Sa’d Zaghlul won the respect and love of their peoples and were popularly and legitimately delegated as spokesmen for their nations’ twin causes of democracy and national independence. Today in Egypt we have Ayman Nour, Saadeddin Ibrahim, Tarek Heggy,et al, but they’re no Sa’d Zaghlul. They are many things but, at best, dubious democrats with nugatory constituencies.

I realise that no state can build its foreign policy on magnanimity or charitable sentiments. But states who build their foreign policies on the systematic frustration and containment of democratic popular wills will never have peace. The United States and Chile is the easiest example. Henry Kissinger decried the “irresponsibility of the Chilean people” for electing the socialist Salvador Allende and so rammed through a murderous American client who now has the distinction of being one of the most reviled dictators on earth, pathetically cowering under house arrest until the Chilean legal system decides his fate. In 1953, the Anglo-American “Operation Ajax” ejected the popularly elected and beloved Dr. Mohamed Mossadegh and installed the skittish, unpopular, and inept Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. Remember that when Pahlavi was ousted by a popular revolution in 1979, Iranians held aloft large posters of Mossadegh in the streets. Toppling democrats and installing autocrats may not be what the United States is now doing in the Middle East, but the same blithe disrespect for and fear of mechanisms for the expression of popular political sentiment are as strong as ever.

What is certainly the same is half a century of manipulation and intervention in Arab politics. And a security-centric focus on Arabs as problems to be managed and barbarians to be neutralised rather than citizens with legitimate political projects to be negotiated with. There are three culprits responsible. First is Israel’s insistence on ensuring not only its primacy over the region but its moral superiority compared to the Arabs’ dysfunction and depravity. The Israeli-centric narrative of Arabs as problems “who understand only the language of force” and other such staples is tightly woven into American foreign policy; look no further than the Pentagon’s use of the racist and hateful The Arab Mind written by Israeli Rafael Patai as the handbook for treating Iraqi prisoners. The second culprit is Arab ruling elites, bereft of any political legitimacy other than their faithful custodianship of American interests. When they are domestically challenged for monopolising political and economic power, they quickly conjure the bogeyman of the Islamists. The third culprit is American policy makers who out of either expediency or myopia have chosen to embrace the Israeli-centric view and the bargain with the usurping elites, all the while making noises about democratisation.


There are alternatives to such a deadly troika. There was a time when the United States government was seen as a potential friend to the Arabs, particularly in the aftermath of the First World War and the lead-up to the Paris Peace Conference. The story is by now well-known: American president Woodrow Wilson’s “fourteen points” and sympathy for national self-determination stirred serious hopes in subject populations chafing under British and French control. “Why Egypt Rebelled: National Ideals Awakened by Peace Conference Principles” proclaimed a headline in the Washington Post of 31 May, 1919. Sa’d Zaghlul and his delegation (Wafd) made direct appeals to the American government to support the Egyptians’ struggle for national independence from the British, as did ordinary citizens. Villagers in the Nile Delta town of Ashmoun sent a telegram to the American embassy in Cairo dated 25 March 1919. It reads, “We beg you to kindly interfere in the Egyptian question for which the blood of innocent Egyptians is being shed, and their personal liberty is being violated. This should be transmitted to your great country which we respect, and which is looking for peace.”

This and other direct pleas for intervention resonated in some quarters of American public opinion. Washington Post correspondent William T. Ellis wrote a series of remarkably detailed and astute dispatches on the Egyptian uprising of 1919; so sympathetic was he to the Egyptian cause (reportedly delivering a speech at al-Azhar) that he was detained and threatened with deportation by British authorities. The American Senate’s foreign relations committee heard the “appeals of subject peoples who feel that the Versailles Treaty did not give them justice,” as the New York Times wrote on 26 August 1919. Ex-governor of Missouri Joseph W. Folk, counsel for the Peace Commission sent to Paris by the Egyptian Legislative Assembly, thundered: “England’s dealings with Egypt have been contrary to every principle of right and honor.”

In April 1919, even as Woodrow Wilson made diplomatic noises of support for the “legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people for a further measure of self-government,” he left no doubt as to the American government’s recognition of the British protectorate over Egypt (proclaimed in 1914). Undeterred, American journalists and Senators continued their advocacy. Senator Borah, Republican of Idaho, read into the Senate record on 19 August 1919, “I object to forming a partnership with any nation or any combination of nations which have not constructed their civilization and their government upon principles in harmony with the principles of this republic.” Marvelling at internationally isolationist Senators suddenly turned friends of Egypt, the New York Times of 1 March 1920 sneered, “Senator Norris took four hours of the Senate’s time the other day to recite the wrongs of Egypt, bedewing the floor of the Senate Chamber with tears such as one cannot remember his shedding over Belgium and Poland.”

Yet, as they often do, principles of right crumbled before the seductions of might. As his reporting became more involved, the sympathetic journalist Ellis revealed a disturbing American messianic bent, more interested in replacing British with American supremacy than aiding Egyptian independence. Editorialising on the Egyptian and Indian uprisings of the spring of ’19, the Chicago Daily Tribune expressed it best: “Self-determination (in American slang “the spirit of ‘76”) may encounter even more effective opposition in the future than in the past. It is an interesting question whether peoples that are backward, in the sense of scientific knowledge, are not more backward relatively than in the past. A city or district bent on self-determination could be brought to realization of the sharp limitations of that principle more promptly by bombing planes or gas waves than by cavalry charges or even the later machine gun. It may be the world is tending toward an unescapable centralization of power, founded on the strategic possession of special knowledge and the resources of power,” (24 May, 1919).

Democracy Without Conditions

It is an eminently basic point that real democracy is not what foreign powers or local autocrats think it should be, but the outcome of on-the-ground struggles that no one can predict. This applies anywhere and not just the Arab world. But given official America’s framing of the Arab democracy debate, let’s repeat. Real democracy is not what the U.S. government wants or thinks should happen; it’s not those who U.S. embassies bless as ‘democratic’; it’s indubitably not those who the U.S. currently underwrites in the Arab world, and it’s certainly not those ruling elites-in-waiting whom the U.S. is flirting with in several Arab states. And it goes without saying that real democracy is completely innocent of any claims made by Arab rulers. Real democracy is how Arab citizens of all political persuasions will forge it, in spite of and not thanks to American involvement. Would that America’s democracy administrators for once listen and learn from Arab democrats, rather than incessantly attempting to tutor and co-opt them.

Real democracy is not what anyone says it should be, least of all those shoring up the status quo. In Egypt, real democracy is not Gamal Mubarak’s lectures, or Ayman Nour’s political entrepreneurship, or the Ikhwan’s manifestoes, or the crusty opposition parties’ pathetic maneuverings. Real democracy is all of these parties’ undistorted engagement with each other on a level playing field, and the people will decide who among them or between them can rule. In an undistorted, unengineered democracy, the people will also decide if the likes of Mr. Alieddin Hilal should continue to be a part of public politics. The NDP’s desperate hanger-on kindly took some time out of his current purgatory (after being unceremoniously booted from the cabinet last July) to share his philosophical musings, reeking of profundity as per usual. My favourite: “Mark my words: Egypt is pregnant. Great change lies ahead, and the problem is that we as a society have yet to assimilate the depth and profundity of what is taking place today in our country.” I have yet to assimilate the startling fact that Mr. Hilal goes about making these pronouncements when he has so unambiguously and repeatedly failed as both public official and university professor, his ostensible vocation.

Real democracy means all political forces subject themselves to the unforgiving and decisive game of electoral politics. Real democracy means non-interference by the American government and its client Arab regimes, under whatever guise or guile. Real democracy means no one gets excluded or defined out of the political game, and real democracy is when the outcome of electoral contests is never preordained. Real democracy means the end of the tutelage of any one social force over the others, and the beginning of a genuine, undoctored, organised, and periodically repeated process of public choice-making that goes by the name of elections. Election rules are to be decided through public debate, not behind closed doors by ruling parties who then trumpet them as “incentives for competition.” Everyone must be put to the test of elections, no excuses, ifs, ands, buts, or maybes. And let the people be the judge.

Arab regimes have long made clear that they will stop at nothing to make sure this does not happen, and therefore they are the single biggest obstacles to democratic development. If the U.S. government can stand not to set any preconditions and instead accepts the fundamental uncertainty of Arab electoral processes, then it will gain maximum credibility and respect as a promoter of democracy, because it will have respected the choices of Arab electorates, no matter how unpalatable to the American government. But if it stipulates preconditions, intervenes to shore up its supporters and marginalise its challengers, and continues to engage in age-old realpolitik while claiming the mantle of democracy promotion, then its already dangerously depleted credibility will plunge to sub-zero depths, if it hasn’t already got there.

A final note. I’m especially offended by so-called American liberals and self-appointed democracy doctors, whining incessantly about the Arab world’s “democracy deficit” and what “we” (read do-gooder Americans) can do about it. Ever since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, legions of these instant democracy experts have spun lucrative careers dispensing their overnight wisdom about the nature, pace, rules, and “prospects” of democratic development in the Arab world. They direct their exertions not to the region’s citizens but to Washington’s denizens, and are not above lending their services to the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq. This is all well and good if they were honest about their project: defending U.S. national interests. That is their prerogative as American citizens. What grates on me is their insistence on cloaking their moment in the sun as genuine concern for Arab democracy (of the “liberal” variety of course). I cannot speak for other Arabs pining for democracy, but I can speak for myself: “liberal” do-gooders sound suspiciously like the “liberal imperialists” of yore, those earnest hand-wringers who really really really wanted the natives to learn democracy and got all exercised about how best to teach it to them. It’s la mission civilisatrice, redux. I don’t know what’s more offensive: suffering the systematic subversion of Arab democracy by the U.S. government and its local supplicants, or having my hand held and being reassured that it’s all about “women’s empowerment,” “capacity building,” and “education reform”.