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What To Do As Egypt Transitions to Democracy

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s bizarre and wandering late-night address to the nation on Friday is almost certainly the beginning of his end.  Mubarak’s tone-deaf offer to reshuffle his cabinet is a ham-fisted attempt to address the Egyptian protesters’ concerns that only underlines his weakened position.  Only one of two paths seems open for Mubarak: that he clings to power through a campaign of violent and bloody repression, or that he flees Cairo to enjoy a luxurious retirement in Switzerland or Saudi. Given the army’s restraint thus far, thankfully the latter seems more likely.

The Obama administration deserves real praise for standing on the right side of history. Secretary Clinton’s remarks on the weekend’s talk shows struck an unambiguous tone as she called for the Egyptian people to “have the chance to chart a new future. It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy.” Even John Boehner has praised the administration’s handling of the situation.

Should Egypt soon find itself staring “real democracy” in the face, what is the Obama administration’s next move?  The White House would do well to re-read a piece Shadi Hamid wrote for PPI in late 2008, particularly these sections:

Elevate democracy promotion through aid conditionality. The perception that America stands opposed to democratic openings in the Middle East must be challenged head-on so that Arabs and Muslims will begin to feel that they—rather than foreign powers—hold the keys to change within their own societies. The United States can start by articulating a regionwide contract whereby foreign aid is made explicitly conditional on a set of benchmarks, including respect of opposition rights, freedom of expression, and progress toward holding free elections, even if only on the municipal level at first.

Engage political Islam. Democratization will likely further empower Islamists, a reality that the United States must come to terms with. In order to re-establish credibility on democracy promotion—and just as importantly, to show that we have no gripe with Islam—we need to engage in a sustained dialogue with all religiously-oriented parties as long as they fulfill the conditions of renouncing violence and committing themselves to the democratic process. A new administration must begin by stating as a matter of policy that the United States is not opposed to dealing with non-violent Islamist groups and has no problem with parties of a religious character coming to power through free elections.

This would be coupled with the initiation of a U.S.-Islamist “dialogue,” designed to explore areas of tension and misunderstanding. As trust develops, the discussion would move toward the question of how moderate Islamists can help us and how we can help them. In exchange for supporting the political participation of Islamist parties in their respective countries, America would seek to extract certain “concessions” in return, including guarantees that they would respect vital U.S. interests, including standing peace treaties with Israel.


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