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How not to promote democracy in Egypt

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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By Thomas Carothers
Thursday, February 24, 2011

As the U.S. government assesses the uprisings across the Middle East and scrambles to support Egypt's fledgling democratic transition, many ideas are on the table. One notably bad proposal is already being heard frequently in Washington: that to help Egypt prepare for elections we should support not just the development of political parties - a reasonable though sensitive undertaking - but favor one side of the party spectrum. That is, of course, the secular liberal side we feel comfortable with.

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This is a recipe for trouble.

Former ambassador Martin Indyk recently called for the U.S. government "to mobilize funding for the well-oiled American democracy promotion machinery that can help Egypt's youthful secular forces organize for the coming elections." Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has said that "engaging the Muslim Brotherhood must not be on the table." Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) noted that we should not tell Egyptians who can participate in their political life, but that, nevertheless, "our job is to create an alternative" to the Muslim Brotherhood.

A perennial tension in supporting democracy abroad is maintaining a clear line between bolstering key democratic principles - such as political openness and fair competition - and trying to shape particular electoral outcomes. When we begin to choose favorites from a field of political competitors and seek to give them a boost, we step over this line. Not only do such efforts at engineering electoral outcomes undercut our credibility, they also usually backfire against the very people we are trying to help. Witness the futility of the efforts of U.S. diplomats in Iraq to throw U.S. weight behind certain candidates or parties during the various elections since 2005.

If Egyptians decide to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the next presidential and parliamentary elections - a decision they will make through their own constitutional reform process - we will have to make a clear choice if we wish to aid Egypt's political party development. Either we open our programs to all legally registered nonviolent parties, or we stay away from political party support.

It is possible that the Brotherhood may choose not to take part in whatever U.S. party training programs we offer. (These are likely to focus on party organization, campaign methods and other basics.) But then again they might, and that would not be so bad. The National Democratic Institute, operating with U.S. government funds, has been an active, effective supporter of political party development in numerous Arab countries for the past 10 years. It has frequently included Islamist parties in its activities, such as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco, and Islah in Yemen. That inclusion has not hurt U.S. interests and has led to many fruitful dialogues between Arab political Islamists and Americans.

While carrying out research in Indonesia in 2004, I was struck to learn that the International Republican Institute was including in its multiparty training programs the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a conservative Islamist party known at the time for organizing fiery anti-American demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy there. Neither the IRI representative in Jakarta, with whom I spoke, nor PKS officials expressed concern about this relationship. I asked the vice president of the PKS why his party was working with a U.S. government-funded organization affiliated with the Republican Party, at a time when a Republican-led U.S. government was being denounced by Muslims around the world for the invasion of Iraq. He expressed admiration both for U.S. Republicans' political skills and the fairmindedness with which they approached Indonesia's political scene.

It is good that the U.S. government has woken up after decades of support for dictatorship in Egypt and is ready to stand on the side of democracy. We should be acutely aware, however, that unlike Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, local political actors in the Arab world harbor enormous and often bitter skepticism of our democratic bona fides. Our pro-autocracy record in the region is well-known, and our new stance is still taking shape: Shortly after President Obama said his government stands ready to assist Egypt in its pursuit of democracy, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen visited the Gulf to "reassure" America's autocratic allies there of continued U.S. friendship.

If we want to help democracy take root in Egypt, our "job," to use Berman's term, is first to begin building our own credibility. Proceeding on the basis of democratic principles such as openness and inclusion rather than political favoritism and exclusion would be a good way to start.

The writer is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.



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