Enhancing Egypt’s democratic prospects: support the process, not the players (Democracy Digest)


Any efforts to back winners or manipulate the political process during Egypt’s regime change will backfire, with damaging, if not disastrous consequences for the country’s liberal democrats, writes Ellen Lust (left), associate professor of political science at Yale University. Promoting democracy in Egypt must focus on building institutions, not boosting individuals.

The current turmoil in Egypt is prompting many analysts to speculate on the likely political settlement and its implications for US strategic interests.  Some observers even suggest that external actors may be able to influence the outcome of the momentous changes underway.

It is tempting to invest our energies into figuring out those political forces we should work with, those we can sideline and those we must fear if we are to strengthen democracy after Mubarak’s regime.  It draws us to interesting debates: how powerful, moderate, or organized are Islamist forces? What can we expect from the military? Can Mohammed ElBaradei, Omar Sulayman or other ‘friends’ of the West gain support on the streets?

Interesting questions, but the wrong ones – and the wrong approach. We must avoid the temptation to pick winners. Instead, let’s focus on process.

First, we need to reassure Egyptians that we support their struggle for democracy.  Picking and choosing between specific candidates would feed conspiracy theories and undermine voters’ confidence, reaffirming the notion that the US will manipulate events to promote its interests.

Egyptians already have a widespread perception that US aid comes with strings attached:  there are clear red lines vis-à-vis foreign policies (especially Israeli-Egyptian-US relations). Many believe that US support for leaders such as Husni Mubarak, Mahmoud Abbas and others has demonstrated that at the end of the day, freedom and democracy can be sacrificed for regional stability. Supporting individual candidates sends a signal that the US intends to manipulate political actors, and it would discredit those who share liberal democratic values.

Indeed, even opposition activists who develop close ties with the US, some through democracy promotion programs, suffer this problem.  Of course, many Egyptian democrats are understandably protective of their integrity but nevertheless take the view – and the reputational risk – that foreign assistance is often the only source of support for such essential work as advancing human rights, good governance, rule of law or women’s rights. Some groups are willing to accept assistance directly from the US government – from the embassy in Cairo or the Middle East Partnership Initiative, for instance – while others refuse to do so but will accept support from US or European democracy assistance NGOs.  It is a sensitive political calculation for Egypt’s democracy advocates, but even when aid is supplied quietly or through third parties, it can undermine a group’s credibility nearly as quickly as it reaches their account.

Second, we need to remember that radical, anti-American forces are created, not born. They are not fixed, permanent forces, but (as Daniel Brumberg suggests) respond to changing political and economic conditions. The fear that Islamists will take advantage of a post-Mubarak vacuum to establish a radical, “Iranian-style” regime is a real one.  It is particularly significant because Egypt is such a strategic heavyweight in a region where vital security and economic interests are at stake.  Yet that threat is exacerbated if we promote secular forces as a ‘balance’ against Islamists, supporting them while demanding that they reign in their foreign policy at all costs.

In short, the threat is more likely to become reality if we try to repeat the “democracy-building” efforts we undertook with Mubarak – colluding in the pretence of constantly deferred reform while radicalization festers beneath an apparently stable status quo. In that scenario, anti-Americanism will escalate, Islamist forces will radicalize, and the prospect of genuine democracy promotion will be off the table.

Egypt’s leading democrats?

The US must support institutions and processes, not actors. Rather than distinguishing among friends and foes based on ideological proclivities, we need to encourage those who support and strengthen the institutional structures of the state, engage in democratic practices within their own parties, and uphold broader freedoms and liberties.  We need to remember that democracy is made not through elections alone, but by strengthening the institutions that ensure human rights, rule of law, constitutional order, strong political parties, and other fundamental features of democracy.  Ironically, by these criteria, the Muslim Brotherhood—arguably the most democratically run party in Egypt today—should be among them.  It is time to recognize their strengths, and give incentives for ideologically more natural allies to catch up.

The solution is to open dialogue with all actors.  For the past week, while the Obama administration should have been proclaiming unconditional support for those calling for freedom and democracy, it has been playing catch-up with events, discussing the possibility of engaging some interlocutors and ignoring others.  That cannot be reversed.  But, going forward, we can make a concerted effort to follow and encourage the path Egyptians have already forged – establishing broad-based dialogue.

A new era of democracy in the Middle East is a real possibility.  It will require foreign policy adjustments, which will become evident as the pieces fall back into place. It will also require an approach to democracy promotion in the region that avoids the temptation to pick winners and manage the process.  We need to focus on supporting process, not people. Let the people of Egypt do that.

Ellen Lust is associate professor of political science at Yale University and former chair of the Council on Middle East Studies there.  She gratefully acknowledges Julia Choucair-Vizoso for her assistance.

ORIGINAL SOURCE OF THIS POST: http://www.demdigest.net/blog/2011/02/enhancing-egypt%E2%80%99s-democratic-prospects-support-the-process-not-the-players/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+DemocracyDigest+%28Democracy+Digest%29&utm_content=Yahoo!+Mail

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