Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Promoting Democracy: The Case of Egypt

by Elliott Abrams
December 3, 2013


The lesson that Egypt’s military government seems to have learned from studying the country’s recent past is that repression of all criticism is a good thing. Not, mind you, that the Muslim Brotherhood is dangerous and must be repressed, but rather that all criticism of the Army is impermissible.

The events of this week are just more of the same: “Egyptian blogger arrested in widening crackdown,” Reuters reports. The story continues:

Egyptian authorities have extended a crackdown on Islamists, in which they have killed hundreds and arrested thousands since President Mohamed Mursi was ousted in July, to cover political activists who have become more vocal against the military.

My colleague Steven Cook discussed these developments yesterday in an insightful blog post, and presented this analysis:

For the first time since Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow five months ago, street protests erupted in Egypt last week that were not specifically the work of the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at restoring the deposed leader to the presidency….The current controversy surrounds an anti-protest measure that interim president, Adly Mansour, signed into law on November 24.  Among a range of restrictions, the new statute requires Egyptians to secure seven different types of permits in order to demonstrate, bans gatherings of more than ten people—in public and private—and carries hefty fines, which taken together is tougher than efforts to prevent mass demonstrations during the Mubarak period.  With persistent Muslim Brotherhood street protests, a number of important anniversaries looming—January 25 and February 11—and apparent widespread support for stability, it is clear why the government took the steps it did to curb demonstrations.  Still, it is an astonishing irony (among the long list that Egyptians have produced over the last three years), an indication of creeping authoritarianism, and a superlative example of political tone deaf-ness that a government, which owes its very existence to massive street protests, is trying to snuff out the rights of Egyptians to express themselves en masse in public.

It won’t work, in the long run or even the medium run. Americans who believe the “realpolitik” approach to Egypt calls for ignoring this Army policy are making a mistake even from the narrow optic of “realpolitik.” It is unrealistic to believe that a policy of repression will work, especially in the context of a stagnant economy. And when the Egyptian people tire of living in a military dictatorship that cannot produce the economic gains they seek, how strong will liberal, democratic forces who believe in liberty under law be? That depends in part on the support we give them today–and even if it depends only in very small part on that support, what reason do we have for ignoring them? Why should we not favor the forces who want the kind of Egypt we would like to see–secular, democratic, prosperous, with both the Army and the Brotherhood out of power? It’s a strange form of “realism” that ignores those who share our principles and cozies up to an Army that appears to see military dictatorship as Egypt’s proper future.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by ah

    I would be curious to hear your thoughts Mr. Abrams, on how you think the Obama Administration is any different in its cozying up to a military dictatorship than you and your colleagues were in the previous administration. It seems a bit of pot calling the kettle black to me.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    That’s a fair question, and it is clear that the world being what it is every administration must deal with many non-democratic countries. But the Bush administration did not cozy up to military dictatorships like that of Syria or Egypt, it put pressure on them. President Bush repeatedly met with dissident political leaders, and on religious freedom met several times with the Dalai Lama (who in the Obama White House was famously escorted out the back door near garbage bags). President Obama himself has made it clear, most recently in his UN speech in September that promotion of democracy is simply not a priority for him.

  • Posted by Adam

    Obama famously turned his back on Mubarak when the demonstrations would not cease. In many ways, he was following your advice in this post Mr. Abrams, and following in the footsteps of GWB who had begun to put pressure on Mubarak to liberalize and democratize.

    Those policies were realpolitik failures. As many pointed out before and afterwards, the liberals and their allies (local and foreign) were pushing the door open for the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The lesson here is that supporting a liberal democratic minority in a country can ultimately lead to their enemies taking power, democratically. Hamas was elected, Morsi was elected. The enemies of democracy can use democracy to take power. Therefore we should not pursue democracy blindly; we need to support those liberal and democratic forces who have a high likelihood of carrying the elections in the long-term, otherwise it all backfires a la Egypt 2012-13.

    Bottom line: U.S. interests and values in Egypt are better served by a military dictatorship than an Islamist one. It ain’t pretty, but that’s the truth, and there is no realistic alternative.

    So to answer your question: “Why should we not favor the forces who want the kind of Egypt we would like to see–secular, democratic, prosperous, with both the Army and the Brotherhood out of power?”

    Until such a time as Egypt reaches a real ‘democratic tipping-point’ where the threat of an Islamist victory at the polls can be practically ruled out, the U.S. should desist from antagonizing and alienating the officers that are friendly to the U.S. You don’t have to love them, but you do have to respect them and deal with them, and be attentive to their interests as allies in the region.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    To Adam: the problem with your approach, in my view, is the phrase “until such time.” There will never be a time unless dictators open some political space. In a closed system, only extremists and conspirators like the Brotherhood thrive. A slow, steady, responsible, moderate reform is what is needed, to give moderates a chance to develop a party that can win. Mubarak created a system where the two alternatives are the Army and the MB. That was not inevitable but was the product of choices he made.

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