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The Middle East Should Follow Egypt’s Lead Towards Democracy

Posted on the 22 March 2011 by Warigia @WarigiaBowman
Date: March 21, 2011
The change sweeping the Arab world is now entering into its second month. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan are demanding political representation, free speech and democracy. Only one Arab government other than Egypt is responding to the protests sweeping the region in a manner which respects the right of its people to participate in government: Jordan.
Indeed, in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, the people's demands for change are being met not with reform, but with force, and violence. Protests began in Saudi Arabia this Friday asking for political reform including more representation for the people, and action against poverty. The Saudi government responded to this action by arresting and beating protesters. In Bahrain, protests started in which the majority (Shia) people asked to be involved in government decision making. In a disturbing development the Saudi and Emirati governments did not send troops to support the rebels in Libya, but did send troops into Bahrain to crush the protests. Protesters in southern Syria are also asking for political reform, including free speech and economic growth. The Syrian government is reacting by arresting dissidents. In Yemen, protests began at the beginning of March asking their authoritarian “president” to leave now, and not wait until the end of his term. Violence broke out in Yemen when snipers shot peaceful protesters. The president then imposed martial law.
The journey towards democracy in the Middle East and North Africa will be long, and full of obstacles. I suggest that analysts and readers think of the transformation sweeping the Middle East as a process, not an event. To examine the potential risks and rewards of this transformation, I consider the cases of Egypt and Libya as point and counterpoint: one country is moving swiftly towards democracy, while the other country is in the midst of a bloody civil war, and humanitarian disaster.
Egypt has taken the first of many steps towards a democratic transition. On January 25th, the Egyptian people spoke out. They demanded a change in leadership, and asked that an autocrat of thirty years step down. Their actions were largely peaceful, and they used the tools of non-violent resistance. They were rewarded on February 11th when President Hosni Mubarak left office. The Egyptian people refer to this period as the “January 25th Revolution.” Theorists point out that in fact, Egypt has not experienced a true revolution. According to Professor Steven Levitsky, a democracy expert at Harvard University's Department of Government, what Egypt is currently experiencing is more accurately termed a regime transition. At the moment in Egypt, the military is in power. Accordingly, Egypt has removed a dictator in the person of Hosni Mubarak but is currently being ruled by the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces. Egypt has not emerged as a full-fledged democracy. Arguably the Egyptian people are still living under a form of semi-authoritarian rule, all though that rule is certainly liberalized with comparison to the previous government.
Nonetheless, Egypt is making excellent progress on its journey towards democracy. A constitutional referendum was held on Saturday, March 19, 2011. This represents the first major election ever held in Egypt. The election was marred by some drawbacks, and in my view, was not totally free and fair. Most importantly, not enough time was given for Egyptians to understand the meaning of their vote. Voters were "encouraged" by the Muslim Brotherhood with rice and oil to vote “Yes.” There were inadequate numbers of polling stations. Some polling stations erupted into violence, as when Nobel Prize Laureate Mohammed El Baradei was attacked with stones and glass when he attempted to vote. Yet, the successes of the Egyptian Constitutional Referendum of March 19, 2011, greatly outweighed the problems. Egyptian universities worked hard to train election monitors. A peaceful rally was held in Tahrir Square in which people tried to educate each other about the meaning of their vote. Soldiers provided protection for the protesters. The election was hotly debated in the press and the television: free speech is emerging. Most polling stations were peaceful. Normally boisterous Egyptians queued quietly as they awaited their first opportunity to cast a vote that "mattered."
In contrast to the peaceful and promising transition in Egypt, Libya is experiencing a violent outcome in response to people's demands to political liberalization. The Libyan uprising is entering its fourth week. The Libyan people must be praised for their determination, and persistence in the face of unrelenting force. Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Qadaffi has responded to peaceful protests with brutal violence, hiring mercenaries, and ruthlessly targeting civilians. The unrest in Libya began on February 15, 201. The main reasons for the protests were the lack of political freedom, the spread of corruption under the Qadaffi regime, and the need to expand freedom of speech. Thousands turned out peacefully holding signs and chanting to challenge Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's 41 year strongman rule. Qadaffi responded by firing on the protesters, turning the situation into a bloody civil war between loyalists and rebels.
A broad campaign of airstrikes led by France, England and the US began pounding the Libyan coast on March 19, 2011. US missiles are attempting to enforce a United Nations no-fly zone to keep Qadaffi from crushing rebel forces. Some critics have expressed concerns that military intervention against Qadaffi could backfire badly, causing resentment in the region. There is a need, as expressed by writers in the Nation, and in AlJazeera, to balance the desire to act in solidarity with the rebels against the risk of harming civilians. In addition, the desire to support the rebels must be balanced against the need to support Arab self-determination.
Overall, the weight of history, humanitarianism, and self-determination fall on the side of intervention in Libya. Qaddafi’s efforts to frame the rebellion against him as a "Western Plot," play on a well worn fear and paranoia present in Arab states that they are not fully in control of their own destiny. It is important for regime change to be organic, and driven by the citizenry. Indeed, the failure of democracy to take root in Iraq can be blamed in large part on the fact that democracy was imposed by the West, not asked for by the Iraqis. This is not the case in Libya, where the people have clearly asked for the removal of Qaddafi through protests, and by fighting bravely alone although they have been outmanned and outgunned.
Further, international opinion is firmly on the side of intervention. On February 26, 2011, The UN Security Council correctly called for a no-fly zone in Libya. Such a no-fly zone should help the anti-Qadaffi rebels to regroup, and should limit Qadaffi's ability to respond to the uprising. On March 13, the Arab League endorsed the concept of a no-flight zone over Libya. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for military action in Libya. Obama wisely waited to initiate Western supported military action  until after the Arab nations agreed that a no-fly zone area should be enforced. This decision to wait until help was requested from regional powers respects the Arab need for self-determination, and also represents an international consensus that action was required.
A few key lessons can be drawn from the contrasting scenarios in Egypt and Libya. First, it is no accident that Egypt is one of the first Arab nations to liberalize. Egypt is basically a secular country. Egypt’s population includes Christians, and even a few Jews, and there is support for religious freedom for all citizens. Second, Rwanda taught us that genocide must be stopped. As Anne Marie Slaughter of Princeton has argued, the air strikes in Libya are in support of humanitarian grounds. Third, autocrats must not be tolerated, even if they are politically useful, or even if they have oil the West wants. In the short and medium run, human rights and democracy require that the United States stop tolerating autocratic and oppressive regimes such as those found in Saudi Arabia. Fourth, change must come from below. The Arab people have a right to self-determination. The West should respect that. President Obama and the UN were wise to wait to take action until they were asked by the Arab League. The UN has asked for a no-fly zone, not an international conflagration. The US should not commit ground troops, but should merely “soften the targets” so that the Libyan rebels have a fighting chance. Finally, the West can support protesters by sending money and supplies to non-profit organizations, political parties, and other civil society groups oriented towards reform. In addition, educational exchanges between academics and students can facilitate exchanges of ideas. Egypt should be viewed as a beacon for democracy in the region. Egypt is already exporting the idea of freedom by holding its historic vote this weekend. Any support the West can supply for democratization in Egypt can only lead to more reform and liberalization in the region.

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