Cairo & Danville, Kentucky - Spreading democracy is the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Encouraging free elections across the Middle East has been touted as a way to turn the tide in the political climate of the region. The promoters of this policy hope that authoritarian regimes with no regard for human rights or free enterprise will end the abuse of their populations and interference with American interests: that soon the Middle East will be dotted with American-style democracy, with the few hold-outs crumbling beneath domestic and international pressure. They hold that recent elections across the region are an example of this movement. But how much effect have recent elections had? Do elections really equate to democracy? An examination of Egypt’s first multi-party elections does not validate the administration’s claims.
In the years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush’s Middle East policy and national security strategy have focused on encouraging the spread of democracy around the world. In a landmark speech in November 2003, President Bush stated:
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export…. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”
This policy has taken several forms, including both friendly and not so friendly diplomatic pressure and even war. Neo-conservatives, like their hard-core anti-Communist predecessors, believe in the domino effect, but today, it is democracy that is supposed to spread like a virus. Iraq was to be the poster child for a peaceful, post-authoritarian democracy. Despite the continued mayhem in Iraq, the administration argues progress has been made in the region.
President Bush is particularly proud of the democratic progress made in Egypt. A combination of diplomatic and internal pressure encouraged Egyptian President Mubarak to allow the country’s first multi-party elections in 2005. The Bush administration lauded the process as a breakthrough. In his 2006 State of the Union address, even after the many flaws in the Egyptian election process had been revealed, Bush praised the efforts, saying, “We're writing a new chapter in the story of self-government – with…men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom.”
Although the administration’s optimism was also echoed by both the Egyptian and the American press, once the process had begun it became clear that Mubarak had not relinquished as much control as expected. The voting process was revealed to have been dubious, and vote-buying was readily apparent. The Egyptian media, to their credit, did not shirk from reporting on the corruption. Pictures of campaign members distributing valuable gifts and money to voters at polls were all over the media. The Egyptian media also showed that out-and-out cheating was occurring. Although anti-cheating measures, such as glass polling boxes, were taken, tampering still occurred. Overt campaigning by Muslim fundamentalists, who seem not to have entirely accepted the key democratic concept of equal rights, particularly as it pertains to Coptic Christians in Egypt, also cast a shadow over the process.
The revelation of tampering in the presidential elections led the Bush administration to tone down its praise for Mubarak and pressure the regime for freer and more legitimate parliamentary elections, which soon followed. Unfortunately, corruption and governmental interference continued and even intensified as Mubarak grew apprehensive about political change.
If there is one glimmer of hope in Egypt, it is that the media was able to fairly and honestly report on events, revealing to Egyptians how mangled the process was.
The Bush administration has acknowledged that elections do not make a democracy, but it continues to emphasise voting, even at the expense of other issues, or when only a small segment of the population actually votes, as was the case in Egypt. Bush has even acknowledged that the American democracy model is not the model for all nations and that the development of a true and functioning democracy surely takes time. However, the rhetoric of a coming flood of political change and a policy of military intervention if the leadership of Middle Eastern countries is not to the United States’ liking contradicts these statements. Democracy may someday come to Egypt and its neighbours, but impatience and intimidation will not hasten the process or ensure just and sustainable reform.
* Bassem El Sharouney and Stephanie Rowe co-wrote this article as part of the Soliya Arab-American dialogue program (www.soliya.net.) This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), June 13, 2006
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