The enthusiasm of the U.S. government for pushing democratic reforms in the Middle East must be one of the shortest policy conversions on record. Remember the president’s proposition? If we pry open the political systems maybe just maybe we can persuade bad guys to put down their guns and play by rules that are sort of like our rules. And maybe they’ll even play by rules that Washington doesn’t think it has to respect, like the Geneva Conventions and the Bill of Rights.
OK, the Palestinians had a great election, as free and fair as any small “d” democrat could wish for, but damn, the wrong guys won. When it comes to Palestinians and Israel, it seems, all bets are off, and we need to make sure this particular baby never makes it out of the crib. And too bad if we have to squeeze the entire population — no matter whom they voted for — to make sure.
No question, Hamas has done some terrible things that should not be swept under the rug. An organization that has killed hundreds of civilians as a matter of policy has lots to account for. But Hamas is also an important political force in the Palestinian arena, it has pretty much kept a cease-fire with Israel for the past year and a half — at least until Friday, when Israeli artillery shells killed seven Palestinian civilians and wounded 30 more and Hamas said the truce was off. There is clearly a debate going on within this organization, and it would seem this is a moment to encourage those who want to move from the battlefield to the caucus room. If George Bush’s Big Idea of giving people good reasons to put aside violence and play a different kind of politics ever had any feet, it was in just this sort of situation. Clearly what’s needed is leadership here (and there) that can walk (promote democracy) and chew gum (fight terror) at the same time. Such leadership is not to be found in Washington, alas.
Let’s put Palestine and Israel aside and consider Egypt. Secretary Rice gave a terrific speech in Cairo last June and said that the U.S. had for 60 years pursued stability at the expense of democracy and achieved neither. She criticized the police and vigilante violence against peaceful protestors that had occurred in Cairo a few weeks earlier and she called for judicial independence and an end to a quarter century of emergency rule. In his State of The Union message the president called on Egypt to “lead the way” on democratic change in the region.
Since then, though, President Mubarak’s security state has gotten only nastier, not nicer. Over the past two months security forces have arrested some 600 persons mainly because they protested — peacefully — Mubarak’s extension of emergency law for another two years and because they supported some courageous judges whom the government is punishing because they have called for greater judicial independence. Many protestors were badly beaten, and most of those arrested are still in jail a month later, no charges filed since that’s not necessary under the emergency law. And Ayman Nour, the man who challenged Mubarak and came in a distant second in the country’s first (and very controlled) presidential election last September is now serving a five-year term in Tora prison on trumped up charges of forging signatures on a petition.
If you thought you might hear a few words of criticism from the president or the secretary, think again. Nada. When Rep. David Obey (D-WI) introduced an amendment to this year’s foreign military aid appropriation bill that would delete $200 million from the $1.3 billion military aid package for Egypt next year, Rice’s assistant secretary for the Middle East, David Welch, argued forcefully against it. Rice herself wrote to the committee that “Reducing U.S. assistance would seriously damage our partnership as well as the broader strategic interests of the United States.” She needn’t have worried, since the lobbyists for Raytheon and other major military contractors got the “vote no” message to plenty of committee members, and a few of Egypt’s military brass were flown in to push the “strategic ally” line.
This week, on the House floor, Obey and a few other House members introduced another amendment, to take a paltry $100 million from Egypt’s $600 million economic aid package. Obey’s amendment lost 225 to 198, in good part because the Republican leadership would have none of it. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), the bill’s manager, said it would “kick sand in the face” of a strategic ally. After all, didn’t you see Cairo on the map of places where the CIA has been secretly dispatching terrorist suspects, according to this week’s report by the Council of Europe? Kolbe also trotted out some hoary Cold War language in the floor debate: pushing Egypt on democracy “could push this country away form the United States and allow another foreign power to gain a foothold in the region,” he said. Someone please tell the gentleman from Arizona that the Soviet Union was last seen in the region — or anywhere — 15 years ago.
Clearly the administration and its Congressional allies, including more than a few Democrats when it comes to democracy in Palestine or Egypt, are choosing “stability” over democracy. All the signs are that, as before, we will get neither.
Joe Stork works with the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch in Washington.