Egypt and Us Foreign Policy
Did our foreign policy have anything to do with the Egyptian protests?
Image by Brooklyn Museum via Flickr
It is, I think, too early to try to predict what will happen in Egypt. But its’ probably not too early to look back at our foreign policy to see whether our actions may have led (even if indirectly) to the protests we see on our television today.
Adam Przeworski, the noted theorist of transitions to democracy, opined that once an authoritarian regime starts transitioning to democracy, it has to keep going. Or, as he put it in an interview once you take that first step, you have to go forward. It’s like the bicycle theory: if you don’t keep going, you fall. The reason is simple. Once an authoritarian government allows different factions to set the agenda, the people’s response is to demand greater freedoms. At which point the government must repress the populace, flee amidst anarchy, or oversee a transition to democracy.
If Przeworski is right, this raises the question of whether (or to what extent) American actions in 2005 led to what we are seeing in Egypt (and indeed, elsewhere in the Middle East) today. Let me explain. In the (now infamous 2002 axis of evil speech) then-President Bush articulated America’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East. This wasn’t just words. There was real, behind-the-scenes pressure put on authoritarian governments in the region. And the pressure worked. In 2006, the Middle East Quarterly was able to report that there is no doubt that Washington’s pressure… helped enable passage of a constitutional amendment to permit multiparty presidential elections [and] a broader mandate for judges in election oversight. Then came our failure in Iraq.
Yes, there was considerably more freedom in Iraq but also considerably more chaos. And suddenly, the airwaves were filled by calls (from the Left and the Right both) to stop this democracy in the Middle East nonsense. And the pressure wasn’t just internal either. The European Union, which has considerable business interests in the Middle East, let it be known that it prefers stability to democracy. The pressure to stop the democracy nonsense worked. Or, as Secretary of State Clinton said when discussing military aid to Egypt in 2009 while the Administration is supportive of human rights, the foreign military financing should be without conditions. In other words, we were of course going to pay lip service to reforms in Egypt but that is all it would be; lip service.
But in the meantime, the people had gotten a taste (although a little taste) of greater freedom. And, just as Przeworski predicted, they wanted more. For all the bashing they have taken recently, it appears that American intelligence reports began to warn that unrest in Egypt would probably gain momentum a while back. We simply chose not to listen.
My advice to our policy makers is to listen now. If nothing else we may get a better idea of the kinds of consequences our actions (and inactions) may have.