Tag: democracy

Egypt’s Iraq Connection

Overall, President Obama was right to applaud the Egyptian military for defending (at least for now) rather than killing Egyptian civilians, potentially avoiding  the Arab world’s Tienanmen Square. Whether Obama’s rhetoric could have been more supportive, as we saw with Tunisia, is up for debate. But it appears that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to shape an orderly transition is running into trouble.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reports that Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, was “the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.” Suleiman used to be head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat).

According to U.C.S.B. Professor Paul Amar, the mukhabarat, which detains and tortures foreigners more than Egyptians, is less hated than the Interior Ministry’s State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla), and different than the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi), “the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as ‘the police.’” Mayer reports that Suleiman Suleiman was also the C.I.A.’s liaison for the rendition of al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheikh al-Libi. “The Libi case,” Mayer reports, “is particularly controversial, in large part because it played a role in the building of the case for the American invasion of Iraq.”

How ironic that America’s attempt to export democracy to Iraq was aided by a repressive government like Egypt’s.

U.S. Should Stand With the Egyptian People

Oppressed people rarely get opportunities to express their anguish and disillusionment. Today in Egypt for the seventh straight day, thousands of ordinary citizens are pouring out onto the streets, demanding the expulsion of President Hosni Mubarak, calling for an end to emergency laws giving police extensive powers of arrest and detention, and claiming the legitimate right to run their own country. It is well past time for U.S. policymakers to stand with the Egyptian people and rethink Mubarak’s purported role as an “anchor of stability” in the Middle East.

Many in Washington fear that the path Egypt takes after Mubarak might not lead to a freer and more prosperous future and that an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, will assume power. This concern, however legitimate, is largely beside the point.

First, the Ikhwan is popular for very legitimate reasons. Like Hezbollah, Ikhwan’s social-welfare programs provide Egyptians cheap education and health care. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has even formed a loose union with the movement, which over the years has become relatively more moderate.

Second, even if Egypt’s revolution does not bring about the political or economic freedom that Washington deems fit, it is not for the United States to decide whether Egyptians choose wisely the interests and concerns that lie within their limited grasp. Events have certainly moved quickly, and fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, but Americans should not be reluctant to embrace a political emancipation movement for fear that it might be worse than whatever it replaces. After all, history shows that forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel, often in spite of the United States. Even if the Brethren does take control, it’s emergence would be a natural consequence of the lifting of Mubarak’s repressive police state. Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted repeatedly that Egypt’s future will be decided by the Egyptian people, not by Washington, even though the notion that U.S. officials can be neutral simply by not taking sides is demonstrably false, as protesters are being arrested by a U.S.-backed security apparatus and sprayed with tear gas manufactured in the United States.

Third, it is not clear at all that Mubarak is a reliable American client. Yes, he has kept peace with Israel, but the veneer of control under this Caesarist despot has faltered in the past several days. His curfew, rather than discourage Egyptians from rising up, has given them the opportunity to stand on the threshold of a political renaissance. In fact, reports on the ground suggest that lives may have changed completely. For instance, what was depicted over the weekend as a massive prison break was apparently Mubarak releasing criminals from jails in order to unleash terror in the streets and punish Egyptians for recent riots. Is Mubarak really the political figure that America should be supporting? Does this question really need to be asked?

The Obama administration can extend diplomatic support to a political emancipation movement in Egypt, thereby visibly abandoning its long-time dictatorial client and pushing other U.S.-backed autocrats to end censorship, political repression, and address their people’s demands for economic and political reforms. This change, however belated, can help salvage a decent relationship with a successor government and with the population of the country– similar to moves President Ronal Reagan made during the 1980s toward both South Korea and the Philippines. Although such a stance would likely do little to limit recruitment levels of militant outfits in North Africa, it does have the potential to substantially enhance America’s image in the Muslim world.

Although Mubarak has promised reforms, economic growth cannot act as a substitute for political liberty. Mubarak oversees a corrupt and exploitative political system that relies on patronage and cronyism. Economic opportunity and political expression have stagnated over the last fifty years (not just the last 30). Mubarak is now grasping at straws, pledging to institute economic reforms and policies that will just keep him in office longer. Despotic leaders like Mubarak love to adopt pseudo-economic reforms to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot endure. Sooner, rather than later, Washington and Cairo must acknowledge and embrace the Egyptian people’s instinctive desire for freedom.

C/P on The Huffington Post.

An Imaginary Federal Election Commission

Jeff Patch and Zac Morgan of the Center for Competitive Politics report on the storm that is brewing at the Federal Election Commission over regulations to implement Citizens United. The three Democratic appointees propose regulations that would impose significant elements of the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that failed to pass Congress last year. The three Republican appointees, in contrast, propose to clarify existing law and clear away defunct regulations, all with an eye toward the holdings in Citizens United. The FEC seems unlikely to adopt the proposals by the Democratic appointees. After all, the Democratic commissioners do not have and are unlikely to obtain majority support for their agenda.

Imagine if the Federal Election Commission were directed by a seven-member board where one party or the other held a working majority. Imagine also the Democrats had a majority on this fictional commission. The regulations proposed by the three current Democratic commissioners would become the law of the land. They would become so despite the fact that Congress itself did not pass the DISCLOSE Act and the regulations contravene the spirit and perhaps the letter of a major Supreme Court decision.

How would that (imagined) outcome be compatible with American constitutional democracy? How would it comport with the rule of law?

Tunisia: An Omen for Other U.S.-Backed Regimes in the Muslim World

The sudden collapse of the Tunisian government on Friday underscores the turmoil toward which the Muslim world  seems inescapably drifting.  As I wrote earlier today at The National Interest Online:

Today, as during the Cold War, policy makers in Washington seem to expect economic growth to act as a substitute for political liberty, thereby ignoring the instinctive desire for freedom. Despotic leaders love to adopt pseudo-economic “reforms” to mask their coercive measures and perpetuate the status quo, but in the end, the institutionalized oppression imposed by ruling elites cannot be appeased in that way. Time will tell whether Tunisia and its neighbors evolve toward a freer and more prosperous future. But either way, human history confirms that fundamental change is a gradual and often painful process, and that more often than not forces erected to suppress individual freedoms eventually break down or unravel…

Check it out!

Another View of Tunisia

On Saturday, inspired by Fareed Zakaria’s writings on “illiberal democracy,” I expressed concerns about the prospect of quick elections in Tunisia, a country that has not had a free press, an independent judiciary, or other elements of liberalism. Khelil Bouarrouj, a Tunisian-American libertarian, thinks I am overly pessimistic. Here’s what he wrote me:

While Tunisia has never been a true democracy, the largely educated middle class in the nation is well-learned when it comes to the principles of a free society. The regime’s authoritarianism does not speak for the courageous Tunisian lawyers, activists and students; along with the general professional class. Tunisians know what a free press looks like. They’ve seen it around the world when they travel and social networks have served as a dissident channel. And let me add without hyperbole that on Saturday Tunisians awoke to a free press. The usually propagandistic state television changed its logo (which was a regime ensign) and became a voice for free debate with call-ins from average Tunisians. The private media was hosting panel discussions and it was stunning: people have shaken off the fear, and educated journalists and other civil society individuals were openly debating and discussing a whole host of issues. The newspapers that were published that morning ceased with self-censorship, and their coverage and editorials became free forums. A casual reader and observer of the press/media would conclude that it is dominated by a liberal social class with strong democratic values and articulation. In short, the past absence of an institutionalized free press does not mean that Tunisians do not understand the merit of free debate and differing voices. They always have and needed only the opportunity to breathe, which they have now seized.

This lesson, I believe, applies to democracy as well. The fact is that liberal social norms have been ingrained in Tunisian culture: a secular state, equal rights for women, higher education, religious tolerance, etc. I do not state this as a patriot, who has certainly been emotionally moved in recent days, but as an observer who has numerous family and friends in the nation and been engaged in countless political discussions.

The images of the protesters themselves tell a story. Unlike in other Arab nations, the opposition was not uncouth Islamists but a liberal middle class and students. The demonstrations at colleges had Arab youth spell out the word freedom (which was widely evoked during the month), and this was not just a slogan but a genuinely understood ideal. The nation is ready to be a true democracy and truly entrench democratic values. The cultural ethos is already democratic and this is what led to the protests, defining their voice and even the demand that the transition government adhere to the very letter of the constitution. After the president fled, the prime minister took over but Tunisian lawyers immediately declared it unconstitutional (as it was), along with buzzing messages on Facebook by the newly energized populace, and within hours the premier handed power to the speaker of the parliament according to the constitution. The high court has declared that elections shall be held in 60 days per the constitution as well.

Tunisians wanted to start off right with respect for the rule of law. And that’s just it: this nation has been democratic at heart; the recipe for democracy if you will, and the rule of law is understood, respected by Tunisians and had been upheld even under the past regime with the obvious exception of the corrupt and now dethroned ruling elite. Tunisians precisely threw them out because of their repressive rule and flagrant abuse of the law. And the fact is that the people are so committed to a free, democratic Tunisia and the rule of law that they did not acquiesce to an unconstitutional transfer of power, even though they had achieved their main objective of expelling the president and the premier was going to reign solely as a temporary president until elections are held.

Again: people wanted to start a new dawn without compromise on the rule of law. It is no trivial matter that even in the excitement and shock of victory people still thought about the constitutional provision and demanded it be respected. One may have believed that the people would have been elated and surfeit to achieve a monumental victory, unprecedented in the Arab world for a popular revolt to bring down an Arab tyrant, and not bothered with a provision, which would appear to be minor in context of the historic day and new beginning, and which is ultimately inconsequential since the caretaker would leave after elections. But they were not, and that speaks volumes. I have been glued to Facebook updates, the best pulse of the nation right now, and after the premier assumed power Tunisians immediately noted that this is unconstitutional and began to demand his removal. Tunisians wanted the constitution to be respected from Day One and it was the people who made it happen, again. On Facebook, the sentiment is unanimous: a clean break with the ruling party, respect for the rule of law, free and fair elections, and upholding the constitution. After such a dear victory, the widely heard pronouncement is that the people will not be complacent and are ready and willing to eagerly guard their rights and see to it that a democracy worthy of its name will be planted in Tunisia.

After Friday, the Tunisia people have earned with great sacrifice their freedom, and the people are determined that their God-given rights shall not slip an inch and are closely watching the transition as the proverbial vanguards of liberty, and the people will see to it that their hope will be made concrete. The nation is ready and while no democracy is perfect and all democracies are often in a state of oscillation, Tunisia is the best bet and hope for the Arab world’s first real liberal democracy. And I believe it will be a model for the rest of the region.

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton …  reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said… .

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that “reflect the true will and aspirations” of Tunisians.

I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):

…for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not….

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law….

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power…. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge….

It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities….

While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step….

Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Let’s hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government–including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress–even as they move toward holding elections.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.