Lately, I’ve noticed an increased number of American politicians suggesting that the Arab Spring was a disaster and that the region needs strongmen to stabilize it. Ted Cruz famously insisted that the Middle East was safer when Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi were in power. Rand Paul said the current chaos stems from the toppling of dictators. Even Bernie Sanders argued on “Meet the Press” that while our ultimate goal is democracy, the region would be more stable under dictators.
But when I worked on Middle East policy at the State Department, I saw just how destabilizing dictators in the region are. I worked on Egypt and human rights as a human rights-focused country desk officer from 2010 to 2012. There, I saw the brutal tactics of President Hosni Mubarak’s government destabilize the country.
On the desk, I watched Mubarak’s government undermine and dismantle the very institutions that could have paved the way to a more stable and peaceful country. By restricting which new political parties could be established, controlling what they could say and engaging in election fraud, it prevented Egypt’s political opposition parties from gaining experience. And by attempting to control the activities and funding of organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, it diminished Egyptians’ access to important political training in democratic processes.
At times, it resorted to a more direct approach. I met with liberal Egyptian activists who were arrested for their political beliefs, journalists who were jailed for their writing and others who had suffered violence at the hands of Egypt’s security forces. Most genuinely wanted to improve their government and help build bridges between their government and its people. They could have been partners for helping their government to address grievances, but too often they were met with harassment or worse. I will never forget my meeting with one brave blogger who had been threatened and detained by security forces. He told me his heart was broken because the country he loved and wanted to help was the same one persecuting him. Nor could I forget the politician who longed to run as a candidate on liberal democratic values but was a member of one of the many political parties denied the right to form under Mubarak’s government.
These are the people and groups that would have helped prepare Egypt for a rigorous electoral process. Egypt’s talented opposition candidates, if given the opportunity to practice, could have waged stronger campaigns. Its civil society, if given the chance to flourish, could have paved the way to more issue-based politics. But they never had the opportunity to practice.
Mubarak’s fierce restriction of Egypt’s political scene set the stage for Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The November 2010 elections that preceded the revolution were considered to be among the most fraudulent in Egypt’s modern history. Egyptians became convinced that the Mubarak government was willing to take any measure to preserve its power, even brutality against its own citizens. The beating to death by police of 28-year-old Egyptian Khaled Said in 2010, whose image was widely circulated, was a trigger for Egyptians’ discontent to boil over into a demand for change. Or as one Egyptian friend put it to me, “we couldn’t get that picture out of our heads.” With little prospect for reform, the government’s legitimacy crumbled
In other words: Mubarak created the chaos that ensued when he was ousted.
With the increased concern about terrorism, this lesson is more important than ever. Allying ourselves with regional strongmen may make things stable in the short run, but it hurts us in the long run. Terrorism flourishes in places where the government is no longer seen as being on the side of the people. Human rights play an important role in that equation.
The Egyptian activists and politicians I met believed strongly in a democratic Egypt but were prevented under Mubarak’s government from building the political structures and civil society they needed to succeed. Without unfettered political training, free speech and the ability to form alliances around common goals, democracy cannot fully develop and true stability cannot be achieved.
Mubarak’s fierce repression alienated his population. His government worked to snuff out civil society and the beginnings of small liberal democratic movements to make it appear as though there were no alternatives. It created the false illusion that the United States had to choose between it and radical Islamists.
It is no secret that the Middle East is aflame and that terrorism constitutes a real threat in Egypt and throughout the region. But the most formidable enemy is created the moment we stop holding governments accountable to their peoples’ highest values. The best way to win is to nourish the small democratic movements and encourage states in which their citizens believe they truly have a stake and a future.