In Cairo, Stability, Democracy — or Neither?

By Leonard Fein

Published January 31, 2011.
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Be careful what you wish for.

Over the years, American officials have with modest frequency lectured other countries about their denial of basic civil liberties to their citizens. Some lectures have been quite public: Cuba and Venezuela come readily to mind. Others, such as China, have typically been reported sotto voce. During the Cold War, the United States did not hesitate volubly to condemn Soviet practice. And the American administration has been quite explicit, mostly in private, in cautioning at least some of the Arab nations that their authoritarian governments would one day reap a whirlwind.

Hello, whirlwind.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously told a Cairene audience that America, which had traditionally supported stability over democracy in the Middle East, had “achieved neither.” In his own Cairo speech four years later, President Obama was considerably less direct but scarcely cryptic: “No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

When stability and democracy — human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and communication, free and fair elections — are at odds, American sentiments are clear: We believe in the supremacy of democracy. But American sentiments are not the same as American interests. In the case at hand, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has for the last three decades been a key American ally. That alliance has kept the Suez Canal open and has kept Israel free from war with its largest neighbor. So mostly we have turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s autocratic regime, saying little more about its failings than we have said, for example, about Saudi Arabia’s.

Just before Mubarak came to power in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s assassination, I was in Damascus. I shall never forget what I was told by a very senior official of the Syrian government. “I am,” he said, “in constant anger with the United States. Why do you not criticize our human rights record? You criticize others. Why are we exempt? I can only conclude that you hold us to a lower standard, and I take that as an insult.” I was, to put it mildly, stunned by his candor, and rather surprised when some months later he was elevated to an even more senior position in the Syrian government. And that was during the time of Jimmy Carter, whose action on behalf of human rights was his signal achievement.

Today, I rather doubt that America is taken all that seriously as the undoubted, albeit intermittent, champion of human rights. Even aside from Iraq, our compromises in the search for stability have become too sloppy. Les raisons d’Etat trump des raisons de droits every time.

There are echoes of the stability-vs.-democracy tension in the Jewish experience. The core of the argument between the rabbinic tradition and the prophetic tradition was an argument between stability and justice. The rabbis argued that without stability, there could be no justice. And the prophets argued that without justice, there would not be stability. And wonder of wonders, both were right.

That is what faces the Obama administration right now. How does the United States promote two goals that are both worthy but that have classically been in tension with each other? One does not envy the administration, but the fact that the unfolding saga in Egypt is a source of discomfort in Washington is as nothing compared to its impact in Jerusalem.

The importance to Israel of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty can hardly be exaggerated. Cynical observers complain that it has led to a “cold peace,” and it is true that the Egyptian people hardly endorse it. But it has enabled Israel to withdraw its forces from a southern front that was once a major site of their deployment; it has engaged Egypt in policing Gaza’s boundaries; it has brought natural gas to Israel; it has enabled Egypt to play an active and constructive role in the faltering peace process. And more.

Now? Who knows? But every day the impasse between the people and President Mubarak continues increases the probability that major change is in store for Egypt, if not this week then next, or next month or, in any case, soon. And it is difficult to speculate on the diverse directions that change may take without concluding that all of them most likely bode ill for Israel. And very nearly all that Israel can do while its own circumstances are in so many ways at stake is to be a passive witness.

The optimist is the one who says, “This? This is the best of all possible worlds.” The pessimist is the one who replies, “I’m afraid you’re right.” The only optimists now are on the streets of Cairo.

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