Wednesday, February 27, 2008

They Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

In many ways, US foreign policy in the Muslim world has created a series of perverse incentives for the despotic regimes that we support (such as Mubarak in Egypt, the monarcy in Saudi Arabia and Musharraf in Pakistan). These leaders know that they can maintain the lucrative flow of money and military hardware by presenting themselves as the only viable leadership option in terms of promoting a pro-Western and/or anti-terrorist agenda. Along these lines, such leaders take pains to point out that should actual free and fair democratic elections occur, anti-American and un-democratic Islamists would seize power via the ballot box. Thus, true democracy must wait. Indefinitely, or as long as such radical elements remain a political force.

Given this dynamic, leaders like Mubarak have an incentive to ensure that no viable, non-radical alternatives emerge that could actually challenge his regime in an election (if such an option were to present itself, Mubarak would lose the justification for maintaining his grip on power). Thus, it actually serves Mubarak's interests to thwart the growth of relatively secular and/or pro-democratic forces while giving a certain amount of leash to more extremist elements.

Suffice it to say, such a situation is ultimately damaging to our interests: the radical groups gain in popularity and prestige as they are given a certain amount of room to grow in an environment in which they are seen by the population as the only alternative to the unpopular ruling regime. Relatedly, we become closely associated with that same unpopular regime by virtue of our efforts to prop it up.

We would be better served if we pressured these regimes to allow more room for non-radical political organizations to coalesce - political groups that could offer credible and popular alternatives to the current set of despots through free and fair elections. It wouldn't be easy, but then, our massive amounts of aid do provide a certain leverage. That way, we could rightly assume the role of champion of democracy which we claim regardless, and could sever ties with the brutal dictators that we take pains to label democrats even when our rhapsodizing is fooling no one (but instead tarnishes the concept of democratic reform itself).

Shadi Hamid passes along an anecdote that neatly captures this backwards phenomenon:

Last Wednesday, Khaled Hamza, an influential (although low-profile) moderate in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested. Hamza is the editor-in-chief of Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s official English website. I got to know Hamza in the summer of 2006, where we met numerous times over coffee at Groppi, a cavernous ice cream joint in Tahrir Square. He was incredibly helpful, putting me in touch with senior Brotherhood leaders, and pointing me to documents I needed for my research. I also got the chance to do something few Westerners ever do – I got to know him not just as a contact or an interviewee, but also as a person. We had long, fascinating discussions about the internal tensions within the Brotherhood and about the future of Egyptian democracy. In this man, I saw a microcosm of the struggle before Egypt, and before America – on one level a struggle within Islam, but also a struggle between reformers and the dictators who seek to silence them.

Sure enough, Hamza is an Islamist, but he is, most of all, a democrat. He didn’t care how many times a day you prayed, or whether you mixed with members of the opposite sex. He didn’t care if you called yourself a “secularist” or a “socialist.” He only cared if you were on the side of democracy. For him, Islam was a motivation, a point of reference; it was not, however, a strict, legal system, with limits and punishments to be inflicted. Inspired by Justice and Development Party in Turkey, he wanted to move the Brotherhood and the "Islamic project" beyond an obsession with shariah and toward a model that was unequivocally democratic.

More interestingly, as I got to know him, I could also tell that he had, in one sense, fallen in love not necessarily with America, but perhaps with the idea of America. Let me explain what I mean by this. Like nearly everyone in the Middle East, he viscerally opposed U.S. policies. But where many Brotherhood leaders I met seemed genuinely angry at America, Hamza expressed, instead, a deep sadness. It was almost as if he felt betrayed, because he believed – or wanted to believe – that America was capable of so much more. He saw what so many Americans themselves had forgotten, that we had the potential to aspire to something greater in our engagement with the Middle East, that we could, one day, align ourselves not with brutal dictators, but with the everyday Arabs who had suffered under them.

He believed it was still possible. That’s why he was so willing to meet and talk to me. He wanted to send a message to the U.S., asking us for help, imploring us to play a more constructive role. This, after all, was pretty much the point of the Brotherhood’s English-language website. It was an effort to build bridges with the West and to start a dialogue across the divide. He knew that most of the Brotherhood's senior leadership had little interest in reaching out. So he did what he could. He worked from within the organization, advocating for a more moderate, pragmatic approach. He knew he was in the minority and that the Brotherhood, at large, was still dominated by people who were thoroughly conservative and reluctant to adapt to a changing political environment.

Shadi is spot on with his conclusions:

That said, it would be a mistake - and a naive one at that - to assume that Hamza is representative of Islamism writ-large, or the Brotherhood itself. He isn't. He is unique, but that’s precisely why it's such an outrage he was imprisoned last week. It provides further proof that the Egyptian regime is terrified of the possibility that there might one day be a rapprochement between the West and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamza, and other Brotherhood reformers who have been arrested of late, represent that very possibility, and, for that reason, they are seen as too dangerous. We've seen this before. It is an old story in the Arab world. Hopefully, this time, we'll think harder about our response.

I don't expect the Bush administration - noted more for rhetorical flourish than actual policy shifts in favor of democracy promotion - to handle this situation with anything more than passive protest, if at all. However, I relish the thought of being proven wrong.

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