Freedom policy update

We seem to have persuaded many Egyptians (though not the blogger Baheyya, who belongs to the “We’ll do it, but not because you asked” school) that the Administration truly means to push for democracy in the Middle East, Egypt included.  Naturally, the Egyptian government now detests encounters with Administration figures, as this interesting article from the London Times Online relates.

When Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, arrives in Cairo this month, democracy will be at the top of her agenda. Not long ago Cairo would look forward to such a visit; now there is unease. “I am sure they are dreading Condoleezza Rice coming out,” a Western diplomat said.

The apprehension is well founded. This month Mr Bush telephoned Mr Mubarak to berate him over the attack by activists of his ruling party on an opposition demonstration where women protesters were sexually assaulted. The Americans are pressing Cairo to accept international observers to monitor the elections. They intervened to help to secure the release from jail of Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who shot to fame after announcing that he would challenge Mr Mubarak in Egypt’s first multi-candidate elections in September.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.  Mubarak’s son Gamal will probably not succeed his father, as originally planned; but whether the succession will be peaceful and democratic, or a struggle among the ruling dinosaurs, or a chaos pitting Muslim zealots against secularists and pharaonic socialists against market reformers – this is impossible to say.

The road to democracy in the Middle East, as David Ignatius observes in today’s WaPo, will be long and winding.  The events in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt have been dramatic, but are only the first steps down that road.

A clear-eyed account of Arab democracy would also note that the Lebanon balloting was similar to Iraq’s much-touted elections on Jan. 30. The world was rightly moved when 8 million Iraqis braved the threat of death to cast their ballots. But that drama shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that the Iraqi voters were overwhelmingly Shiite Muslims, aiming to lock in their group’s majority power, and that many of them had been told by Shiite clerics that if they didn’t vote for the winning slate endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani they would suffer damnation. The Iraqi vote was a triumph for democracy, but also for sectarian loyalty.

A blunt summary of the Lebanese political situation comes from Ali Fayyad, the research director of the Hezbollah militia. “We are still a country of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” he told me Friday in his office in the well-guarded Shiite enclave in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “This is a reality. But we do not like it, we do not want it, and we want to move past it.”

The freedom policy is less than a year old.  The changes it envisions, if it succeeds at all, will cover generations.  We should not be impatient, but we can, I think, take some satisfaction from the the changes that have occurred in so short a time.



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