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The Americans do not learn from history

Just like 30 years ago in Iran, the Americans believe they are promoting the values of democracy in Egypt by turning their backs on their allies

First published in NRG-Maariv on January 31,2011 – click here to see the commentary on the NRG website.

Tens of thousands of enraged demonstrators set fire to pictures of Mubarak and call for his resignation, while the Egyptian police and army stand amid the rioting crowds, protecting the government institutions and, from time to time, being forced to shoot at their brothers. Meanwhile, thousands of kilometers away in the White House Oval Office, the National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stand at the side of President Obama, tension at an all time high. In recent days, Advisor Donilon has been calling for Obama to overtly support President Mubarak.

“The Egyptian President is a pillar of support for U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world”, Donilon says, “Turning your back on a loyal friend will send a dangerous message to all of our allies around the world”. Clinton becomes irritated by these remarks, retorting, “Mr. President, I cannot believe you are going to betray all of our values. How are you going to face the American people and explain that you are supporting the oppression of democratic processes in Egypt?”. “OK” Donilon replies, “I have a solution for the situation we are in. I have received an authorized appeal from senior Egyptian military figures and they wish to prevent an Islamist takeover in Egypt by staging a preventative military revolution. They ask for our blessing. I think this is an excellent solution for the situation we find ourselves in”.

“Are you crazy?” cries Clinton, “The United States support a military coup? This can never happen. Mr. President, I implore you, do not go down in history as the one who crowned military tyrants over freedom seekers”. “I have made up my mind”, says President Obama, “Tomorrow morning I will make an announcement calling on President Mubarak to refrain from foiling the democratic processes taking place in Egypt and to honor the free and legitimate wishes of the Egyptian people”. A few hours following this declaration by President Obama, the Egyptian military leaders announce their defection to the opposition while President Mubarak, understanding that no support is going to be received from the U.S., boards his private jet and sets off for long-term exile.

These events have not yet occurred. However, they do depict a likely scenario for Egypt based on the U.S.’ conduct in a similar crisis that took place over thirty years ago – the Khomeini Revolution in Iran in 1979. History is indeed repeating itself, and the same scene is once again playing out, with only minor changes to the script and different names for the protagonists (President Jimmy Carter, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance being replaced by Obama, Donilon, and Clinton, respectively). It would seem that the Obama administration has learned nothing from Carter’s failures and mistakes.

A ballad of naiveté

It is difficult to underplay the dangers inherent in this process that began in Tunisia, moved on to Egypt and is infiltrating other countries as well. This process that is sweeping the region raises many questions. Who will replace President Mubarak and when? How much stronger will the fundamentalist-Islamic entities become as a result? Which Arab country will be next? At this stage, it is too early to determine what will happen and what the answers to these questions will be. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these popular uprisings are occurring in pragmatic Arab and Muslim countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, and not in the radical axis countries like Iran and Syria.

Therefore, the question to be asked is – why? Is the economic situation of the Iranian and Syrian people better? Are the governments in these countries more democratic? The answer is of course no. In fact, the opposite is true – it is because Mubarak’s and Ben-Ali’s regimes are more democratic than their radical axis counterparts that this is occurring in their countries. The media and use of the internet are far less restricted in both Egypt and Tunisia, and their rulers refrain from carrying out indiscriminate massacres of the people.

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are the result of difficult economic situations and frustration and lack of hope among the citizens, as well as the result of the rulers’ alienation from their respective peoples. Yet, while these revolts may be an authentic expression of the public’s sentiments, it cannot be ignored that the Islamist movements are lying in wait for the moment when the Americans take their chestnuts out of the fire, so to speak. When the pragmatic government falls and free elections are held, these Islamic forces will be given the opportunity to play a greater political role.

And what is the Obama administration doing during all of this? It is playing the role laid out for it over thirty years ago, intent on upholding the values it preaches. As the famous proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just like thirty years ago, the Americans believe they are promoting the values of democracy by turning their back on their allies in the Muslim world. It would seem that, in the eyes of the American government, the world is divided in two – democratic and non-democratic. In this respect, the Obama administration is no different than the Bush administration. Both governments have personified the naiveté of the American people, who view democracy, and especially democratic elections, as a magical solution to all of the world’s ills and especially to the dangers of Islamic radicalization.

Obama’s bet

The former Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, demonstrates this American obsession with democracy. Dr. Rice is currently working on her book in which she describes the quest for democracy as a main element in America’s foreign policy during her term in office. Dr. Rice explains that she does not fear a state where Islamist elements take over the government in a democratic fashion, as the democratic mechanism is stronger than these elements and will allow the people to oust them eventually.

Furthermore, during talks I held with Dr. Rice at Stanford University, I explained that millions of Muslims around the world might prefer to live in an Islamic religious state, ruled in accordance with the Sharia Law, to living in a democratic country. Dr. Rice’s response highlights this American naiveté: “Ironically, a state ruled by Sharia law is not necessarily undemocratic”. Dr. Rice is of course ignoring the inherent contradiction between a democratic state, which views the people as the source of the state’s authority and legitimacy, and an Islamic Sharia state, which views religion and God as the only source of authority.

According to the Americans, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was elected via democratic elections, has more legitimacy than President Mubarak, who is attempting to prevent radical Islamist elements from taking over the government in Egypt. The Americans do not bother themselves with trivial matters such as the fact that Mubarak’s popularity has dropped amongst his people in part due to his identification as a U.S. ally, or that, since the September 11th attacks, the global Jihad entities, led by Bin Laden, have enjoyed growing sympathy among the peoples in Muslim countries, which has caused the increasing alienation between the citizens and their pro-American governments.

The U.S., with its naïve and narrow world view, sees this alienation as an indication of the government’s lack of legitimacy and therefore urges the leadership to carry out political reforms that facilitate the translation of the Islamists’ popularity into tangible political assets. The Americans refuse to recognize that democratic elections are not necessarily an expression of progress and liberalism. They ignore the fact that a democracy must be judged not by its mechanisms and institutions but, rather, by its values.

At this early stage, President Obama has bet on the victory of the opposition in Egypt, and, in doing so, he has contributed to its success. Only time will tell whether this will be a Pyrrhic victory for democracy in Egypt and the entire Arab world.