An international relations theory professor once compared President Woodrow Wilson’s approach to democracy with that of President George W. Bush. Post-World War I, Wilson advocated for the self-governance of the peoples that were liberated from Ottoman rule. His approach could be compared to planting a tree: You introduce the seed of democracy, nurture it, and then watch it flourish. On the other hand, Bush’s post-9/11 approach to democracy was to remove any existing autocratic governing system that harbored hostility toward the U.S.—using force if needed—and replace it with a democracy. This is analogous to digging a hole and then planting a full-grown tree in it. Recent events in Tunis and Egypt, however, show how much better Wilson’s approach to instating democracy was Bush’s approach. Although the damage in Iraq and Afghanistan has been done, there still needs to be a change in policy concerning other autocratic regimes in the area.
American foreign policy had little to do with the Jasmine revolution in Egypt. In fact, the American government was caught off guard and had barely any time to assess the situation. Joe Biden first expressed that he wouldn’t call Mubarak a dictator, but an ally;he later called Mubarak’s resignation a pivotal moment in history. The ambivalence of the American position might just have been the best thing that happened to the revolution. The movement was relatively peaceful—except for violent stunts instigated by Mubarak’s henchmen—and showcased the power of the people to initiate change.
As with Tunisia, the events in Egypt are inciting other grassroots movements toward democracy in the Arab world, and the American government should welcome that. Demonstrations are taking place in Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, just to name a few. The State Department should pressure its autocratic allies into instituting fundamental changes to their oppressive regimes. If true democracy were to flourish in the Middle East, U.S.-friendly dictators cannot count on their Western allies to keep them in power, but need to become responsible toward their people.
The main excuse that kept Mubarak—and countless others—in power for three decades was that he was the lesser of two evils. Americans feared the rise of an Islamist fundamentalist regime in Egypt that would undermine the Camp David Accords. Although the U.S. did lose a major ally in the region, there are no indications that any democratically elected government would be hostile toward the U.S. Even the widely feared “Muslim Brotherhood” has worked to alleviate such fears by announcing that it will not field a candidate for presidency. The Brotherhood, a non-violent conservative Islamist movement, aims to create an Islamist state, but whether it has enough popular support has yet to be determined. If all goes well, Egypt should have a democratically elected government within six months.
Such apprehensions should not stop the U.S. from pushing toward reforms in other Arab nations that are witnessing peaceful protests calling for reforms. Arabs are calling for legitimate rights that include freedom of speech, better standards of life, and a fair judicial system. If the U.S. genuinely wants to spread democracy in the world, it should start by pressuring their allies into making concessions to their oppressed peoples as a first step to long-term change.
Condoleezza Rice once explained to Arabs that “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” was Israel’s anti-Hezbollah war on Lebanon. However, the 2006 war failed to change the status quo between the two countries, and her “new Middle East” was stillborn. New birth pangs now seem to have hit that region, but they don’t include missiles, bombs, and tanks. They are the dead and injured of Tahrir Square, Pearl Square, and all pro-democracy protests, and they will bring in the birth of a new Middle East.
Elias A. Shaaya ’12, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Eliot house.