Discomfited by Democracy

Discomfited by Democracy

The uprising in Egypt is a rare opportunity to support democracy without imperialism. Will Obama take the chance?


I’ll admit I’ve now watched Glenn Beck’s infamous rant about “the coming insurrection” at least half a dozen times. If you haven’t seen it, on Monday, January 31, Beck stood before two blackboards with chalk drawings of maps of Europe and the Middle East and proceeded to slap little fire icons haphazardly on any and all countries within view—Italy! France! Algeria! All On Fire!—while weaving a disturbed vision of a New World Order in which the Weather Underground and the Muslim Brotherhood conspire to usher in a caliphate while China… well, you get the picture.

“You don’t know the truth!” Beck told his audience. “America, you’re not getting any useful information at all from the media…. They’re not giving you anything! They’re showing you pictures of people who are rioting. You feel bad for them, as you should because they’re being played. You look at the angry dictator and say that guy’s gotta go, as you should. But why was he our friend?”

This tour de force of paranoid ignorance earned Beck some criticism from Bill Kristol and others on the right who seem to have finally awakened to the fact that Beck is a clownish embarrassment. But I think there was more than a little method to the madness: anyone watching the spontaneous, exuberant assertion of democratic rights by Egypt’s protesters, and the thuggish violence the state directed toward them in response, can’t help hoping that the anti-Mubarak forces prevail. Gallup reports that 82 percent of Americans are “sympathetic” to the protesters. But Beck doesn’t share that outlook, and it was his job to explain to his viewers why they shouldn’t be rooting for democracy.

It’s no small task. For years and years conservatives and much of the centrist establishment have been telling Americans that the US mission is to bring democracy to the world, to liberate people from tyranny, to upset the established order of despotism. That was the great gift we gave the Iraqi people! Yet here’s democracy arising organically with no need for our bombs, and suddenly members of the political class don’t seem so sure it’s a good idea. Charles Krauthammer says the closest thing the protest movement has to a spokesman, Mohamed ElBaradei, “would be a disaster,” and that “only a child can believe that a democratic outcome is inevitable. And only a blinkered optimist can believe that it is even the most likely outcome.” Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg and Mike Huckabee fret about the Muslim Brotherhood and Israel’s security, and Dick Cheney calls Hosni Mubarak “a good man.”

Conservative opinion on Egypt is by no means uniform, but it’s not surprising to find right-wingers attacking the pro-democracy protesters and ElBaradei. After all, the foundational thinker of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, was terrified by the anarchic forces that popular revolt can unleash. After the storming of the Bastille in the summer of 1789, Burke wrote in a letter that the French “are not fit for Liberty, and must have a Strong hand like that of their former masters to coerce them.” In 1790 he took to Parliament to denounce the French revolutionaries for having “pulled down to the ground their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures” and warned that the door was open to “an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy.”

Few conservatives would see much of Burke in our current occupant of the White House, but there is a certain core affinity. In 2005, when David Brooks first met the young Senator Obama, they reportedly spent much of the time discussing and debating the finer points of Burke’s philosophy. The cardinal principle of Obamaism is that incremental change at the margins is always and everywhere preferable to both the status quo and radical upheaval. In 2004, before he was the presidential candidate of hope and change, the newly elected senator wrote a congratulatory e-mail to his supporters in which he revealingly defined his mission as “making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

But sometimes “just a little bit better” is not better enough. There are some status quos that are intolerable, some regimes so morally bankrupt that radical change is the only remedy. And this is what the Egyptian people in the streets have so courageously called for.

At first, the White House seemed to signal that it endorsed, tentatively, diplomatically, this simple truth. But it has since backtracked. Our envoy Frank Wisner, a former diplomat and current attorney whose firm has represented the Egyptian government, said Mubarak “must stay in office in order to steer [democratic] changes through.” Hillary Clinton was forced to distance herself from the remark but not, it appears, from the underlying logic. At a recent conference in Munich the secretary of state expressed the administration’s wariness of a democratic revolution “hijacked” by authoritarian forces, a more sober version of Glenn Beck’s fear. The result of the public US message, the New York Times reported, “has been to feed a perception, on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, that the United States, for now at least, is putting stability ahead of democratic ideals.”

“We got caught in a trap,” says Steve Clemons, who runs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. “What the people wanted is regime-change and we became advocates of regime-adjustment.” In concrete terms “regime-adjustment” appears to mean that Omar Suleiman, torture supervisor and Mubarak loyalist, will preside over the transition to elections in the fall while Mubarak stays in power; the thirty-year “emergency law” endures; and the monstrous security apparatus, which Suleiman oversees, remains intact. To Egypt’s democratic movement this must sound a lot like “No you can’t.”

After all the neoconservative talk of “democracy promotion,” the situation in Egypt is a rare opportunity to support democracy in a nonmilitary, nonimperialist way. Cairo journalist Issandr El Amrani (aka The Arabist) suggested on Twitter that the United States suspend its massive aid payments to Egypt unless and until a civilian government is formed. Other than that, he says, America should butt out.

Given President Obama’s disposition and the history of revolutions worldwide, I can understand the preference for stability, continuity, small change over big change. The French Revolution did end in the guillotine, and Burke was justifiably horrified. But we’ve spent decades lecturing the world about the imperatives of democracy, pledging to bring it to the Middle East by hook or by crook (or by bomb). Now that the genuine article presents itself—with all the messy complications that revolution entails—is our Republic, founded by revolutionaries, going to conspire with the king so he can keep his crown?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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