A River in Egypt

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"A River in Egypt"

A while back I remarked that “I’m not sure there’s very much the US government can or should do, in practice, to push Egypt into becoming a democracy.” In response to that, Jonathan Kulick noted the existence of a CRS report, “Democracy Promotion: Cornerstone of US Policy?”, on the subject. My read of the report, which, as is frequently the case with CRS reports, is a very useful summary is that we should be skeptical. As the report makes clear, the US does have a good deal of success with democracy promotion programs. But the bulk of the success is concentrated in efforts to assist countries that genuinely want to make a democratic transition. There’s also some record of success in programs designed to bolster post-conflict situations. What there isn’t is much of a track record of success for initiatives designed to coerce an autocratic regime into becoming democratic.

Shadi Hamid also offered an impassioned defense of the view that there’s stuff we can do:

Egypt is one of our closest allies in the region. They depend on us for economic and military support. This means we have leverage, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use that leverage to push for change. For starters, this can mean making the billions we give to Egypt conditional on political reform (for more on this, see here). For more forward-thinking policymakers, we can also explore ways to show the Egyptian regime we’re serious (this could include starting a dialogue with the strongest opposition group in the country – the Muslim Brotherhood. For more on that, see here). Now there is a legitimate debate about how much we can do ultimately do to change Egypt. But the basic point remains – we can at least do something.

On the aid, here’s the thing. Presumably Mubarak’s government would rather have our aid money than not have our aid money. But Mubarak’s government would really prefer to hold on to power than to lose power. Thus aid-related threats aren’t going to persuade them to adopt meaningful political reforms unless our bureaucrats manage to succeed in tricking Mubarak’s into implementing reforms whose implications are more meaningful than the Egyptians realize. But given that the government of Egypt is stacked from top to bottom with people who spend just about all day every day thinking about how to maintain their regime and who are really good at achieving this goal, I think it’s much more likely that we’d be tricked. Then next thing you know you’ve got the President of the United States and the Secretary of State proudly laying on hands and pronouncing a great victory for democracy, the reform remains ephermal, and ordinary Egyptians grow ever-more-skeptical of US activities.

And this, to me, is the main thing to keep in mind for anyone’s pet schemes for US-driven political change in Egypt, Pakistan, wherever. The United States is a much more powerful country than are those other countries. But that power is a very blunt instrument. We should try to employ it in pursuit of goals for which bluntness is not a problem. Micro-managing political outcomes and manipulating politicians is a delicate task. And savvy third-world leaders from Hosni Mubarak to Benazir Bhutto to the Gulf Sheikhs making multi-million dollar contributions to the Clinton and Bush presidential libraries are much better-positioned to manipulate our guys than we are to manipulate theirs. Rather than try to leverage our relationship into political change in those countries, my suggestion would be to simply say that insofar as these are repressive governments there’s a certain degree of closeness we’re going to put some distance between our country and theirs. In the specific case of Egypt, however, this is complicated by the fact that our aid relationship with Cairo is tied to our relationship with Israel. So you’ve got a thorny problem intimately connected to another thorny problem and I’d say I’m pessimistic that much will get done.

That said, yes, we should be engaging with Egyptian opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and making it clear that we’re prepared to have a relationship with whatever kind of government might emerge, but that we’d envision a closer relationship with a democratic government.

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