Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Last Wednesday, the Egyptian government released Ayman Nour, one of Egypt’s most prominent dissidents and a former presidential candidate, after more than three years in prison. Nour’s surprise release has been interpreted by the U.S. press and bloggers like Marc Lynch and the Arabist as an effort by the Mubarak regime to create a more positive U.S.-Egyptian relationship by removing a severe symbolic irritant — the continued imprisonment of Nour –- from the picture. The dissident had become a cause celebre for the Bush administration and Congress, with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponing a trip to Egypt in protest and Congress symbolically slashing $100 million the annual aid budget for Egypt.
But Nour’s case also illustrates the difficulty the United States faces in promoting democratic governance and human rights in the Middle East -– the tradeoff between pressuring friendly but autocratic regimes to improve and needing their help to resolve continuing conflicts. The same Egyptian government that imprisoned Ayman Nour for three years has been vital in trying to arrange a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. President Bush’s “freedom agenda” wasn’t able to square the circle between idealism and realism in the Middle East, and has left the Obama administration an even greater strategic quagmire.
CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis recently laid out a new strategy for democracy promotion in the Middle East for the Century Foundation. He recommends six steps:
1. Restore U.S. credibility by disconnecting democracy and human rights promotion from U.S. security goals and reforming our own human rights and civil liberties practices. The Obama administration has already taken big step in this direction by directing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by next January.
2. Use diplomacy to promote national consensus in key countries and address conflicts in the region. Internal conflicts in countries throughout the region – form Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories to Iraq and Yemen — are driven by the lack of a national political consensus on basic structures of governance. Moreover, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict will create an environment in the region more conducive to democratic reform.
3. Integrate U.S. approaches to supporting democracy and governance reform in the region. All U.S. government assistance – from USAID to the State Department to military aid — should be coordinated to better encourage better governance by recipients of American funding and assistance.
4. Increase positive incentives for democratic reform. The model of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provided incentives to promote economic development and improved governance, is one the new administration can encourage reforms.
5. Diversify funding for democracy promotion in the region. Private philanthropy, endowments, partnerships and the like in the Middle East should be encouraged to take on political reform, building a stronger organic base for democracy and human rights.
6. Recognize the political power of Islamist forces. Like it or not, Islamist groups are potent political forces in many countries in the Middle East. Reform efforts that ignore them are at best incomplete, and the United States needs to take non-violent religious-political movements into account.
The United States should endeavor to create a glide path to human rights-respecting democracy in the region through a series of practical policies. Unlike President Bush’s freedom agenda, which assumed that democracy emerges spontaneously after the removal of restraints, President Obama’s Middle East policy should undertake the hard work that is necessary to make democracy work in the long-term. Doing so also allows the United States to pragmatically work with friendly autocratic regimes toward common security objectives. At the same time, the United States needs to deliver tangible results to the people of these regimes. It’s a difficult needle to thread, but a long-term approach to democracy and human rights promotion in the Middle East is likely to deliver better short-term and long-term results for the United States and the people of the region.