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Egypt, Obama, Bush and the ‘freedom agenda’

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

March 4, 2011

On January 29, with protesters defying police brutality and curfews, former Bush adviser Elliott Abrams claimed that ‘Bush had it right – and that the Obama administration’s abandonment of this mind-set [i.e. the ‘freedom agenda’] is nothing short of a tragedy’.

By February 2, Mubarak had sacked his government and had announced that he would not run for re-election in September. ‘The map of Northern Africa and the Middle East is changing’, declared Yale law professor Stephen L Carter. ‘You can easily trace the curve of freedom as the surge moves eastward. At some point, the land of the free has to get ahead of the curve.’

By February 10, with Mubarak’s departure looking imminent, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer proposed a ‘freedom doctrine’ in four parts. ‘Today, everyone and his cousin supports the “freedom agenda”. Of course’, remembered Krauthammer, ‘yesterday it was just George W Bush, Tony Blair and a band of neo-cons with unusual hypnotic powers who dared challenge the received wisdom of Arab exceptionalism’.

Arab exceptionalism: The notion that the Arabs don’t really want democracy, and aren’t suited to it even if they did. Stated in these terms, the concept has obvious appeal only to the likes of the House of Saud and those keen to excuse their dealings with them. The citizens of Tunisia and Egypt have shown ‘Arab exceptionalism’ to be a nonsense as derogatory and outmoded as the so-called ‘Hindu growth rate’.

Its rejection was a key plank in Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’. As Bush said in 2003: ‘Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.’

The popular movements of Tunisia and Egypt have not only debunked ‘Arab exceptionalism’ they have also exposed the limits of a certain brand of ‘realism’, according to which biddable autocrats ‘may be bastards, but they’re our bastards’ (or, in the words Shakespeare gave a Roman at Caesar’s funeral, ‘I fear there will a worse come in his place’).

According to this thinking, the erstwhile dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, with their jet-black hair and reported fabulous wealth, were bulwarks against the rise of extreme Islamist governments. As if propping up regimes that deny their peoples rights and dignity is an obvious way to prevent radicalisation. As if the best answer the world can come up with to the troubling question of Islamic extremism is Hosni Mubarak.

Set aside the morality of this approach (as realists would advise you should). It didn’t work. Mubarak proved unsalvageable. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has called for elections in six months. And with that same Council announcing that it will honour Egypt’s peace with Israel, the horrors which American support for Mubarak was meant to stave off are unlikely to come to pass.

‘Rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators’, said Bush in his 2005 inaugural address. The Egyptians who refused to leave Tahrir Square when Mubarak offered various concessions (that he would resign in September, that his son would not seek the presidency, that his powers would be transferred to the vice-president) evidently agree.

In the debate over the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis, much has been made of the need to get on the ‘right side of history’. Rightly so. Being seen to side with dictators against their peoples is not a good place to be. It is also an inept approach for the world as it is now: An interdependent global society of people who have, broadly speaking, the same aspirations and who use and are connected by the same technology.

Why, then, the controversy over an American ‘freedom agenda’? Why must it be defended by former Bush officials? One is left with the impression that democracy promotion became so associated with Bush and the neo-cons that it is now akin to a partisan cause.

It would be a pity if that remains the case, because there is nothing particularly Republican or neo-conservative about the universal appeal of freedom. Radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek, billed as the ‘Elvis of cultural theory’, would make an unlikely neo-con. ‘Where we are fighting a tyrant we are all universalists’, Zizek told Al Jazeera English last week. ‘Here we have a direct proof … that freedom is universal’.

Clad in a black t-shirt, Zizek went on to claim the removal of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt as blows struck for a ‘universal revolution for dignity, human rights [and] economic justice’. Barack Hussein Obama – African father, childhood years in Indonesia – is uniquely well-placed to bear this message.

The Obama administration has been criticised during the standoff between Mubarak and the protesters for timidity and vacillation. This is unfair. Egypt envoy and old State Department hand Frank Wisner was speaking out of turn when he said Mubarak ‘must stay in office’, and his remarks were quickly disowned. The truth is the Obama administration maintained its room to manoeuvre in what was (and is) a fluid situation, and harsh criticism from the likes of right-wing historian Niall Ferguson is a price it seems willing to pay.

Obama’s call for ‘genuine democracy’ after Mubarak’s resignation is promising. “Egyptians have inspired us”, the president said. They’ve certainly inspired their neighbours.

For the popular rejection of dictatorship has quickly spread. The four-decade rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi now hangs in the balance in Libya. Forces loyal to Gaddafi were reportedly shooting unarmed protesters while the North African tyrant, at once brutal and preposterous, appeared on state television “to clarify …. that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela”.

His son, Saif, also appeared on television. “We will not leave Libya to the Italians or to the Turks’, he blustered, in a curiously specific riff on the common despot’s refrain that regime opponents are tools of foreign agents. It gets more absurd still. Saif Gaddafi recently completed his doctorate at the London School of Economics. Its aim, Gaddafi wrote, was to analyse ‘how to create more just and democratic global governing institutions’. A fact he could use to impress the protesters he threatened with ‘rivers of blood’ and promised ‘to fight to the last bullet’, should he fall into their hands.

It was John F. Kennedy who urged post-colonial leaders to remember ‘that those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside’. It’s advice the Gaddafi family might like to consider, while Tunisia’s former president – now a guest of Saudi Arabia – didn’t need to be told.

Originally published at

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