By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; A15
When a billboard appeared outside a small Minnesota town early this year showing a picture of George W. Bush and the words "Miss me yet?" the irony was not lost on many in the Arab world. Most Americans may not miss Bush, but a growing number of people in the Middle East do. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unpopular in the region, but his ardent support for democracy was heartening to Arabs living under stalled autocracies. Reform activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and elsewhere felt empowered to press for greater freedoms during the Bush years. Unfortunately, Bush's strong support for democracy contrasts sharply with President Obama's retreat on this critical issue.
To be sure, the methods through which Bush pursued his policies left much to be desired, but his persistent rhetoric and efforts produced results. From 2005 to 2006, 11 contested elections took place in the Middle East: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt and Mauritania. These elections were not perfect, but the advances sparked unprecedented sociopolitical dynamism and unleashed tremendous pent-up desire for democratic choice. Photos of jubilant Iraqi women proudly displaying the indelible ink on their fingers after voting were followed by images of Egyptian opposition voters using ladders to enter polling stations when regime officials tried to block the doorways.
Peaceful opposition groups proliferated in Egypt during the Bush years: Youth for Change, Artists for Change, Egypt's Independent Judges and, perhaps the most well-known, Kefaya. That Iraq has held two genuinely contested and fair multiparty elections, on schedule, indicates that democracy is indeed taking root again there after 60 years of the most oppressive dictatorial rule.
To be fair, Bush did back away from his support for Arab reform in his second term. But the image of his support stuck. Why has Obama distanced himself from his predecessor's support for democracy promotion? One unsurprising outcome is that the regime in Egypt has reverted to wholesale imprisonment and harassment of political dissidents.
Despite his promises of change when speaking in Cairo last June, Obama has retreated to Cold War policies of favoring stability and even support for "friendly tyrants." Far from establishing an imaginative policy of tying the substantial U.S. foreign aid to the region to political reform, the Obama administration has given a free pass to Egypt's ailing 82-year-old autocrat, Hosni Mubarak. Last month when Mubarak's regime extended the "emergency law" under which it has ruled for 29 years, prohibiting even small political rallies and sending civilians to military courts, Washington barely responded.
Apparently the Obama administration thinks that strengthening ties with Mubarak will encourage Egypt to become more proactive in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Mubarak has not advanced Israeli-Palestinian peace beyond what his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, accomplished in the 1970s, and the Egyptian leader has tightened his crackdown on Egypt's brave young pro-democracy bloggers. Egypt is scheduled to hold two important elections over the next 18 months, votes that could well shape the future of democracy in the Middle East's largest country and the region itself. What tone does President Obama want to see established in this volatile neighborhood?
Democracy and human rights advocates in the Middle East listened with great anticipation to Obama's speech in Cairo. Today, Egyptians are not just disappointed but stunned by what appears to be outright promotion of autocracy in their country. What is needed now is a loud and clear message from the United States and the global community of democracies that the Egyptian people deserve free, fair and transparent elections. Congress is considering a resolution to that effect for Uganda. Such a resolution for Egypt is critical given the immense U.S. support for Egypt. Just as we hope for a clear U.S. signal on democracy promotion, we must hope that the Obama administration will cease its coddling of dictators.
The writer, an Egyptian sociologist and democracy activist living in exile, is a distinguished visiting professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J.