February 13, 2011
It is said that George W. Bush, who pushed democracy for the Arab Middle East, is not being given credit for the liberation of Egypt and Tunisia from autocracies. That’s partially true.
He was the first modern American president to acknowledge, as early as in 2003, that relying on Arab dictators did not promote stability. Quite the reverse, it produced radicalism, terrorism. But by 2006, he had abandoned his “freedom agenda.”
Barack Obama, too, took up the banner half-heartedly. It’s only in the last few days that he has found his voice.
Stephen Harper never did. His record on democracy in the Arab Middle East has been wretched.
Post-9/11, Bush challenged the long-held notion that Arabs were incapable of democracy. Perhaps it was not in their genes. Or religion, Islam. He took that racism head on: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?”
By January 2005, he had wrapped his doctrine in religious tinsel — “Freedom is a universal gift from Almighty God” — and included it in his second inaugural.
In June that year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travelled to Cairo to declare: “For 60 years, my country, the U.S., pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Hosni Mubarak and other autocrats resisted it, of course.
But the idea didn’t take hold even among the Arab masses, its intended beneficiaries. They saw it as a PR gimmick to counter raging anti-Americanism over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And they deemed it hypocritical, since the U.S. was using Egyptian and other torture chambers in that region to have terrorism suspects grilled (under the supervision of Egypt’s new strongman, Gen. Omar Suleiman, then the head of Egyptian intelligence).
In fall 2005, Egypt’s parliamentary election saw the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as the largest opposition group. (It was arranged thus by the Mubarak regime to “shock the international community and convince it that the sole alternative to the regime were the Islamists,” as Bahey el-Din Hassan, of the Institute for Human Rights Studies, told me in Cairo in November.)
Still, Bush pushed for elections for Palestinians. “America could not be in the position of endorsing elections only when we liked the projected outcome,” as he explains in his recently released memoirs, Decision Points.
But once Hamas won the January 2006 election, he went along with Israel in helping its preferred interlocutor, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to adopt authoritarian policies.
For Arabs, this was a new iteration of 1991 Algeria. An election won by the Islamists there was annulled by the military, with the support of the U.S. That triggered a civil war in which tens of thousands were killed. The Palestinian electoral outcome led to the siege and blockade of Gaza that continues to this day.
In 2009, Obama tried to reset the U.S.-Arab relationship with his famous address to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo.
He refused to be photographed with Mubarak. But he did grant the Mubarak regime a veto on American funding to Egyptian pro-democracy NGOs, a legacy of Bush’s initiative.
Nor could Obama deliver on his promise of Arab-Israeli peace. For months, he was spurned by Benjamin Netanyahu. And for days during the protests in Egypt, he was spurned by Mubarak, who refused to go. But Obama kept up his demand, in sync with the aspirations of Egyptians.
By Friday afternoon, he had shaken off decades-long American foreign policy and put America on the side of freedom for the Arabs. How far he takes it remains to be seen.
As for Harper, he was the first in the world to penalize the people of Gaza for the crime of electing Hamas, a terrorist group.
He has also been cheerleading Abbas, whose electoral term ran out in 2009 and whose hand-picked prime minister also has no electoral legitimacy.
Harper took Ottawa’s $300 million humanitarian aid to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and diverted it to Abbas’s security apparatus.
During the recent Egyptian crisis, he was on the side of those rooting for Mubarak to stay on and manage the transition to ensure that the wrong sort of people did not get close to power.
Here at home, Harper has bullied those who didn’t agree with him on the Middle East. He axed funding for the Canadian Arab Federation and the Christian group Kairos. (The Speaker of the Commons, Peter Milliken, has just ruled that a document denying funding to Kairos was, in fact, doctored.)
Harper’s appointees to the board of Rights and Democracy caused chaos at the Montreal-based agency because it had given three small grants to one Israeli and two Palestinian human rights groups.
From Ottawa to Cairo and beyond, Canada has decidedly been on the wrong side of this historic debate on democracy.