Going Nowhere: In Mubarak’s Egypt, Democracy Is an Idea Whose Time Has Not Yet Come
Last November, President Bush delivered a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, spelling out the loftiest of his rationales for the war in Iraq—a determination to remake the political world from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula. It was a radical conservative’s most radical address. The end of the twentieth century, Bush said, had marked “the swiftest advance of freedom in the twenty-five-hundred-year story of democracy,” an advance that began with Portugal, Spain, and Greece more than thirty years ago, spread to South Korea and Taiwan, and then, finally, to South Africa and the entire Soviet imperium. By the President’s accounting, there were forty democracies in the world in the early nineteen-seventies and a hundred and twenty by 2000. Never mind the reassertion of authoritarian regimes in Central Asia and elsewhere. For Bush, one region in particular remained stubbornly unfree. “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?” he asked. The United States, he declared, had “adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” that would depend on American “persistence and energy and idealism” but also on the Arab countries—not least, the most populous, powerful, and influential country in the region. “The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East,” Bush said, “and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”
The logic of that rhetorical instruction was not lost on the Egyptians: just as Anwar Sadat, a quarter-century earlier, had flown to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel, Hosni Mubarak, an unchallenged four-term President, a modern pharaoh, should take the equally bold step of creating a constitutional democracy, even at the risk of surrendering power. Egypt is historically central, a civilization of more than seven thousand years’ standing, and, unlike the sectarian societies of Syria and Iraq or the arriviste dynastic oil depots of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it is a true nation-state, the center of nearly all currents, intellectual and ideological, in the Arab world. In Bush’s own mind, at least, he was encouraging a revolution from above, an Arabian perestroika. And the revolution, he made plain, ought to begin in Cairo.