Western Pressure Unlikely: Continuing US Failures, European Absenteeism, and Western Ignorance Portend More of the Worst for Egyptian Democratic Prospects
US President Barrack Obama has failed to engage or meaningfully influence the Arab and Muslim world with either sticks or carrots. Predictable and seemingly practicable reasons are issued, namely protecting regional and global stability by supporting the ‘autocrat you know over the theocrat you do not,’ meaning that preventing the spread of Islamism, even if democratic, is preferred over permitting a legitimate and democratic Islamist accession that may pose an alternative to Western liberal democracy as the “end of history.” (2) In fact this rationale is based more so upon an ignorant and fearful image of Muslims and Islam. Such ignorance and fear on the part of US and Western citizens not only permits continued illegitimate American involvement in the region through both military and economic campaigns, strategies, relationships and incentives, but as such it is also quite deleterious to potential democratic transitions across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
From the post-cold war “arc of crisis” to the post-9/11 “axis of evil,” not much has changed between Western and Muslim-majority, but especially MENA states. George Bush’s 1991 proclamation of a “new world order,” (3) pontificated also throughout the speeches and political rhetoric of Bill Clinton and reinvented as the “global war on terror” by the George W. Bush regime, (4) has been issued as a perpetual justification for US foreign intervention in a region that has long been considered of “strategic importance” to Western political scientists, pundits, and politicians, inter alia. A regurgitation of the us and them logic of the cold war, the reconstruction of this “threat of Islam” or “Islamic myth” has only sustained the “(e)vilification” (5) of Islam that prevents mutual and inclusive cross-cultural democratic dialogue, let alone comparative political theory, between two civilisations - “Islam” and “the West” – to which, often self-prophetically, an inevitable and indeed ongoing “clash” has been erroneously ascribed (since at least the Iranian Revolution, according to some, and certainly following 9/11, according to other, Americans and Westerners at large). (6)
Over half of all Americans believed that American Muslims are not loyal to America, and respondents were twice as likely to believe that Islam fuels violence against non-Muslims since the 9/11 attacks - from 14% in 2002 to 33% in 2006. While less than three-quarters of Americans believed that Muslims want peace, in recent polling more than a quarter disagreed. 81% of Americans disagreed with the statement that ‘most Muslims believe that men and women should have equal rights,’ and half disagreed with the statement that ‘most Muslims around the world are accepting of others.’ (7) A pervasive and affecting fear and ignorance of Muslims and Islam fetters any and all chances of détente, let alone dialogue, with Egyptian and other autocrats.
Whether identified as hegemony, dominance, political realism or realpolik, Obama’s ineffectuality and unwillingness to meaningfully engage or attempt to influence the MENA is the result of complicity to autocracy in the face of indigenous democratic movements that is no different in moral weight or human gravity than mission civilisatrice. Obama’s ineffectuality, and that of MENA’s former European colonisers, is neither insouciance nor impuissance. The exuberance and hope with which Obama issued in his 2009 Cairo Speech, wherein he promised peace and justice, can in retrospect tenably be viewed as his “new world order” to the Arab and Muslim world, whether he promulgates one like the Bushes did or not. The end of the cold war marked an important juncture in US foreign policy for the Middle East and elsewhere, (8) and the Gulf war inaugurated a “test case for a ‘new world order’ [that] was introduced almost as the Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait on 2 August 1990” (9) that has continued to date.
Obama’s recent restatement of a “war on terror” (10) indicates that, as Charlie Savage has written, “Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble George Bush’s in Many Ways.” (11) With new vengeance, an old nexus of terms that, couched in very general (neo-) liberal principles, coalesce around particularistic Western values representing “the civilised” and “the universal” at the cost of many who seek to define for themselves what democracy and good governance in theory and practice.
‘The Autocrat You Know Over the Theocrat You Do Not’
Pervasive and egregious ignorance and fear about Arabs, Muslims and Islam; essentialist claims about the inherent or disproportionately undemocratic nature of Islam and/or Arab culture; ethnocentric approaches to democracy and democratic theory; misplaced and undue fears of the perceived threat that Muslims and/or Islamists pose to the West, Western values and Western liberal democracy, regional and global stability; and the resulting and continued Western support for autocratic regimes all sustain and perpetuate and permit autocracy and totalitarianism in the face of indigenous democratic movements and transitions.
The cyclical nature of this relationship is important: dictators justify the suppression of indigenous democratic movements to Western liberal governments and populations who would otherwise pressure such dictators to permit indigenous democratic movements and transitions by invoking the notion that Islamic and Islamist democracies are a threat to Western interests, regional and global stability. Western governments, for as long as they buy into this notion, support dictators over indigenous democratic movements. Lost within this erroneous and fallacious cyclical relationship are those who seek out democracy by democratic means. Compounding this is the newly voted in leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) who is largely considered conservative. As a powerful contingent in Egypt’s last elections, the MB lent some impetus to the belief that democracy might prevail with Islamist accession in popularity and political power. However, given the fact that the new leader is admittedly more concerned with religious education that political engagement, Egypt is, once again, caught between democracy and naught.
The renowned professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim relays his experiences with the Mubarak regime in Egypt as follows: “At the beginning of this decade, I was imprisoned. In 2005, The Tomorrow Party’s Ayman Nour (who had finished second in the presidential election that year) was sent to jail… And Talal Sadat, the late President’s nephew, has just received a one year prison sentence… His real offense was publicly challenging Mubarak’s scheme to groom his son as successor to the presidency.” (12)
“Thus we find Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s President Ben Ali telling their Western interlocutors, in effect, “It is either us of Bin Laden,” he continues. “If that is the choice, of course Westerners – whatever their love for democracy – will opt for the autocrats over the theocrats. One of the roles of the small but emerging constituency of Middle Eastern democrats is to expose this ploy and warn the West about the scheme into which it is being drawn, in hopes that Westerners will question this cynical trade-off and object to the dictator’s attempts to narrow their people’s choice to theocrats versus autocrats.” (13)
Whither the “Lagging Third?”
As Professor Ibrahim points out, only one-third of Muslims reside in democratic states, and “lagging third” was in fact the first portion of the Muslim world to experience modernisation and to demonstrate democratic potential, following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1789. In 1866, Egypt received its first parliament and drafted its first written constitution, “long before many European countries had these things. This was no fluke, but it rather was a methodical step taken by the modernising ruler Ismail Pasha (r. 1863 – 79) who was immediately emulated by Tunisia’s Muhammad III as-Sadiq (r. 1859 – 81) and Iraq’s Dawood Pasha (r. 1830 – 69). Thus three Arab Middle Eastern lands – technically parts of the Ottoman Empire but in fact each with a substantial amount of autonomy – all started down a path of modernisation that led them toward the embrace of liberal-democratic reforms,” he recalls. (14) Further reforms were evident throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Egyptian and other Arab theorists “drew inspiration from European liberal political and philosophical thought,” though “the liberal experiment ultimately failed” because, as some argue, this was a form of “colonial liberalism” fraught with tendencies from “imperial liberalism” that proved exclusionary and contradictory to local Arab custom and identities, resulting in its rejection. (15) Colonialism was a cause and additional component of these waves of liberalism in that it may have inspired, but it also thwarted these following French and British attempts to democratise the region, which has led to grave suspicion over rhetoric of democracy and democratisation. (16)
Lamenting the Loss of Muslim Brotherhood Islamist Democratic Potentialities in Egypt
Though the MB is not legally permitted to run openly in Egyptian elections, running as nominal independents MB candidates took home one fifth of parliament’s seats in the last elections. Thus, though successive Mubarak victories are determined from the outset, with 94% of the vote in 1990, and 88.6% in 2005, the MB pose as a considerable source of opposition to the regime’s abuses. Yet Mohammed Badie, the newly appointed leader of the Brethren, has indicated that he will not directly confront the regime through pro-democracy protests or further attempts to turn the MB into an official political party. “We reaffirm that the Brotherhood was not for one day an adversary to the regime,” he said in a recent news conference. (17)
Though a small group of the MB’s younger guard appear consternated by Badie’s lack of political will, it is doubtful that significant rifts will entail the fracture of the long-established group, whose 1928 origins as an Islamist movement date back to its founder, Hassan al-Banna, a leading ideologue of Islamism and still widely venerated across MENA and the Muslim world. In al-Banna’s view, MB political partyism would be decreed a paradox, an alien import, and an aberration. Of course, the fact that the MB has taken kindly to democracy and party politics especially following its renunciation of violence decades ago indicates a favourable Islamist turn towards peaceful attempts at acquisitions of power. The appointment of Badie indicates a continuation of peace and a détente between the Mubarak regime and its longstanding Islamist challenger. However, Badie’s acquiescence to the regime’s political dictates and his insistence that democracy is not on his agenda indicates possible backslide into undemocratic waters for Egypt proper.
In sum, neither foreign nor domestic opposition to the Mubarak family’s reign appears likely to stir the foundations of politics in Egypt enough to produce the kind of grass-roots watershed of protest that could otherwise nurture the seedlings of democracy in a country that was once the harbinger of liberal and progressive politics in MENA and the Muslim world. Fear and ignorance from afar and domestic abuse at home ensure that, in Egypt, subjects await citizenship. A demos awaits democracy. Without international pressure, whether from Governments and academics from above, or NGO’s, bloggers and dialoguers from below, Egypt is caught between democracy and naught.
(1) Matthew J. Gordner is an External Consultant in Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Fukuyama, Francis The End of History and the Last Man . New York: The Free Press, 1992;
Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?,” The National Interest , Vol. 16 (Summer, 1989), pp. 3 – 18.
(3) President George Bush, Address to Congress, 11 September 1990 (US Information Service) from Freedman, Lawrence. “The Gulf war and the new world order,” in Survival , vol. XXXIII, no. 3: (May/June 1991), p. 196.
(4) Annita Lazar and Michelle M. Lazar. “The discourse of the New World Order: ‘out-casting' the double face of threat.” Discourse & Society , Vol. 15, Nos. (2-3).
(6) Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 22 – 49.
(7) Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Toward Muslims and Islam , Gallup, Inc., 2009. Last viewed on January 20, 2010 at: http://www.muslimwestfacts.com/.
(8) Keith Krause. “Middle Eastern Arms Recipients in the Post-Cold War World,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , Vol. 535, The Arms Trade: Problems and Prospects in the Post-Cold War World (Sep., 1994), p. 73.
(9) Lawrence Freedman, “The Gulf war and the new world order,” p. 195; see also James Petras, “Gulf War and the New World Order,” Economic and Political Weekly , (March 2-9, 1991), pp. 482 – 484.
(12) Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “Toward Muslim Democracies,” Journal of Democracy , Vol. 18, No. 2 (April, 2007), pp. 7 – 8.
(14) Abdeslam M. Maghraoui. Liberalism Without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922 – 1936. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 4.
(16) Eva Bellin. “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in a Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics , Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jan., 2004), p. 150.