Jackson Diehl argues today that the Obama administration should back Arab democracy activists and not abandon the 'freedom agenda'. I fully agree with Diehl's sentiments. Twice in September, at a Congressional panel discussion and at a GWU event with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, I argued that Democrats should not abandon their long-standing commitment to democracy and human rights just because that agenda had become associated with the Bush administration. I think that support for Arab popular democratic aspirations is key both to restoring America's image in the region and to pursuing America's long-term interests in the region.
But Diehl errs by reducing the Egyptian democracy struggle to Ayman Nour, who supposedly challenged Hosni Mubarak for the Presidency because of Bush's inspiration and has since languished in prison on trumped up charges. Narrowing his lens to Ayman Nour and a handful of "pro-American" activists misses the complex, turbulent nature of Egyptian democracy activism and protest. Neither the Kefaya movement nor the Muslim Brotherhood - the most vibrant political movements in Egyptian politics over the last five years - were inspired or created by the Bush administration. They did allow themselves to hope - mistakenly - that the United States was serious about promoting democracy, especially after Condoleeza Rice's stirring speech at the American University of Cairo. But they have long since realized their mistake.
The Egyptian regime has been systematically repressing and crushing the life out of political opposition for the last three years: the independent press, the judiciary, the Muslim Brotherhood, bloggers, political activists of all stripes. That is why Diehl's claim that "with Bush now on his way out, Mubarak is losing his remaining inhibitions" is frankly ludicrous. Mubarak lost his inhibitions long ago, when it became clear that Bush would do nothing.
I don't know how the Obama administration will approach these issues, especially since none of the key foreign policy positions have yet been filled. But for what it's worth, here's what I'd like to see:
Diehl concludes that "Mubarak and other "pro-Western" autocrats seem to have drawn from Obama's election: that the threat of U.S. pressure for political liberalization has passed." I'm not sure what he's basing that on. Those autocrats have long since concluded that they faced no such threat from the Bush administration. What's more, Diehl seems unimpressed by the widespread (if uncertain) popular enthusiasm for Obama expressed by actual Arab democracy activists, and unaware of the ferment on the Arab op-ed pages and talk shows about Obama's election (more on this soon). You know who else disagrees with Diehl? Ayman Nour. In mid-August, the imprisoned Nour published an open letter to Barack Obama which concluded with his "hopes that January 20, 2009, will be the birthday of a genuine move towards democracy and freedom around the world."