To Autocrats We've Loved Before ...

In what will surely rank as one of the least necessary travel alerts in State Department history, a warning indeed was issued today, advising Americans to reconsider vacation plans in Egypt as a popular uprising in a number of ancient metropolises taunts a massive clampdown from Egypt’s aged strongman Hosni Mubarak. One presumes Tunis, Amman, Ramallah and Sana'a in Yemen are also on the warning list this week as the Arab world continues to convulse. What to add next to the honor roll? Riyadh? Not likely, according to one of Saudi Arabia’s gazillion princes.

In Davos, for the World Economic Forum Prince Turki al Faisal was asked if the Arab world feels more threatened by the prospect of Iran with a nuclear bomb or by its own people armed with democracy. Prince Turki replied, “I don’t know. We don’t have a nuclear weapon. And we don’t have democracy.”


Pretty succinct.

U.S. political figures could learn something from this Turki as Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs struggled to define the Obama’s administration’s attitude toward this inconvenient outburst of democratic aspirations in the Arab world while parsing a U.S. diplomatic legacy in the region that was much more at home, all rhetoric aside, with the corruption-ridden autocracies of a Mubarak or the unlamented President-in-Flight of Tunisia Ben Ali. Foreign Policy was kind enough to round up a collection of recent statements for those keeping score at home.

Clinton and Gibbs were still suggesting yesterday that the Mubarak regime was stable and that somehow the situation could resolve itself if the regime could dialogue with street protestors about reforms—statements that seemed remarkably out of touch with reality as average Egyptians were in the street screaming for the flat-out ouster of the clan Mubarak and Egyptian army patrols began preparations for taking back the streets, whatever that might entail. However this is going to end, with Mubarak stuffing Krugerrands into a duty-free bag or on his way to the eventual crowning of second son Gamal as the once and future Mubarak-in-chief, this popular uprising in Cairo does not look like it is going to end peacefully.

Just three days ago, Secretary Clinton said: “We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

Meanwhile last night on PBS Newshour Vice President Joe Biden was helpfully explaining why our man Hosni was not a dictator: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel.… I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

Newshour host Jim Lehrer asked pointblank if the time has come for Mubarak to go. Biden said: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that—to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there."

Sorry but my watch is running on Cairo time, and it’s saying it’s half-past time for him to go.

Today the message is a little cagier, with Gibbs calling for calm on all sides and revealing that the U.S. might be willing to review the nation’s annual billion dollar aid package to Egypt, let none dare call it hush money, if the government response gets much uglier and Secretary Clinton likewise seeming to toughen the U.S. position, chasing, but not quite getting ahead of the events on the ground and the growing ambitions and aspirations of protestors for human rights, democracy and reform in Egypt. She said in a prepared statement:

We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protestors, and we call on the Egyptian Government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces. At the same time, protestors should also refrain from violence and express themselves peacefully.

As we have repeatedly said, we support the universal human rights of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, of association and of assembly. We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications. These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian Government needs to understand that violence will not make these grievances go away.

As President Obama said yesterday, reform is absolutely critical to the well being of Egypt. Egypt has long been an important partner of the United States on a range of regional issues. As a partner, we strongly believe that the Egyptian Government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political, and social reforms.

I feel sorry for Obama and his administration as it stumbles through decades of hypocrisy regarding the political leadership in the Arab world and America’s presumed preference for democracy and human rights. A succession of U.S. executives have stood by Mubarak and regional despots and kleptocrats with limp calls for reforms for years. Somehow nobody thought a time might come when the Arab public itself might have had enough? Problem is democracy is messy, especially so over there. When we see it in practice; we may not like it. Just ask Hamas.

Obama and his crew seem uncharacteristically out of step and uncertain. Maybe they should spend less time hunkered down with their Arab specialists and confidantes in Israel and more time checking their twitter feeds. Any teenager in Cairo and Alexandria could tell them what time it is.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
7 years 11 months ago
Here is a point of view that George Bush was right about the Arab world.

There was once a discussion over the Iraq war about the possible futures for Iraq.  Should we let a sectarian thug like Hussein remain and hand off his power to his lovely sons, watch as some radical form of Islam takes over or try to establish a democracy.  Bush came down on the last option.  Whether Iraq remains a functional democracy or not is still way up in the air but to subscribe to the other two options was unacceptable.

It is not obvious that anarchy leads to democracy and it may not in Egypt.  There are many factions ready to use the tool of democracy to lead Egypt into a theocratic state for which true democracy has no meaning.  Hopefully, this will not happen
Tom Maher
7 years 11 months ago
A sudden, widespread and intense desire for democracy does not explain the mass anti-governemnt demostarions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon and elesewhere.

Democracy is likely to have nothing to do with what is going on. 

What is going on is that world commodity prices ahve gone up sharply making basic economic goods like food clothing and fuel much more expensive.  This is on top of high unemploymnet especially of young men.  

Discontentment does not necessarily lead to democracy even in the west.  Economic instability is a sure condition for a dictatorship replacing another dictatorship.  

I hope the Obama administration does not follow what Jimmy Carter did with Iran.   
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 11 months ago
Democracy is the least of our government's priorities if one at all.  It's supported dictatorships and even installed them when it is to the benefit of special economic and political interests.  It has come back to bite us before as in Iran and will continue to do so.  As they say, all those people you step on on the way up you will meet on the way down.  The price for supporting dictatorships will eventually be paid by all of us except maybe the people who got us in this position.
Tom Maher
7 years 11 months ago
What Democracy? Where?  The mistake here is people assume that crowds in the street are inherently Democratic in intention and purpose.  No so.  Time and again insurgents prove to be far worse than the original fairly benign dictatorship.  In the case of Eygpt protests over their own personal economic conditions is not an advocacy for establishing more democratic processes and government.  

The real concern here is that a insurgency can be turned into an even worse dictatorship as happened in the Iranian revolution.  Iran was turned into a theocracy - rule by mullahs.   As the rigged elections in Iran of several years ago showed democracy as in a real oppostion party and elections is not tolerated and will be  violently suppressed.

So street protests do not cause the establishment of a democratic government in most places but especially in the middle east which has no tradition of democracy.  
7 years 11 months ago
It strikers me that the protest are from people who after years of little or no reform reached a tipping point (after the Tunisia event) and said enough - we want to live lives with oportunity for ourselves and our children. It may not be about how we understand democracy.
I'm not sure what"benign dictatorship" Mr. Maher is talking about -Mubarak?
The comments I see here are from a partisan point of view and not particulaly informed:analogies to Iran or China or whatever  are based on preconception rather than events on the ground.
I do think it fair to say the outcome is uncertain.Anger has turned to looting and the situation is somewhat grim at this time (10 PM or so in Cairo.)
Better to pray for improvement that try to impose our preconceived ideological ideas on the situation..
Gabriel Marcella
7 years 11 months ago
You have engendered an excellent and much needed discussion. However, your comment about decades of hypocrisy, regional despots, kleptocrats, and limp calls for reforms is unfair. Secretary of State Rice, President Obama, and Secretary Clinton  and other American statesmen pushed reforms. But in international affairs the tail often wags the dog, especially if the tail (small countries) are needed by the dog (big countries). The classic cases in the Middle East are Israel and Saudi Arabia, and earlier Iran.

Moreover, there is a presumption among critics that the United States is all knowing and fully equipped with the tools of political science to engineer the successful democratization of Middle Eastern societies. Far from it. We don't know how to do it, we don't have such resources (though we and partner nations have some useful ideas), and we would likely encounter stiff resistance. Nor do we have the influence among societies that lack some basic intermediating institutions. Finally, what is the price that we would be willing to pay to reform such authoritarian systems? And there would be no guarantees that the effort would work.

Commentators above have noted that crowds and demonstrators don't constitute democracy, yet demands for accountable and honest government is the foundation
for democracy. But how do you channel such democratic yearnings before they're seized by a new breed of autocrats, as history amply demonstrates? This is the policy dilemma that we should be discussing.
Tom Maher
7 years 11 months ago
Looting is not political expression.  Looting is a raw criminal act performed by criminals.  Looting is definitely not legitimate and should not be dignified as expected or usual.  Looting makes no sense but as raw opportunistic acts without any political purpose or meaning.  Looting indicates lawlessness, anarchy and a very deteriated social order. 

Hopefully the Obama admisnistration will recognizre these lawless change of events in Egypt and come out against the anarchy now being expereinced in Egypt.  Peaceful protest is no longer present.  The protestors have now gone out of control and are threatening everyone without reason or purpose.  It is very ill advised for the President to stand by and not come out forcefully agaist the violence and lawlessness now being experienced in Eygpt.  Lawlessness must always be strongly condemned.

 It is not in the United States interest to not condemn the mob rule and anarchy in the streets of Egypt.  The Obama adminsitration needs to stand for law and order or Obama will be seen worldwide as another Jimmy Carter - lacking in conviction in support of law and order and our allies and inept in foreign affairs vital to interests of the United States.   We do not want Egypt turned into another Iran.


The latest from america

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019
Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019