Published September 11, 2011
Beyond catastrophe and mourning, September 11th had unforeseen consequences in the Arab world, especially in my home country of Egypt. The attacks of that day, by citizens of America’s key Arab allies, made officials in Washington rethink their relations with Arab dictators, and begin supporting democracy in the Middle East.
As the Bush doctrine came into being, the United States announced that it would be less accommodating towards Arab despotism. Though the policy was short-lived, it landed like an axe in the ice. All of a sudden, speaking openly of political reform in the Arab world was no longer taboo.
10 years ago, the image of the U.S. in the Middle East was defined not by liberty and respect for human dignity, but the actions of Arab dictators who supported U.S. interests there. Whatever the merits of U.S. policy in the region, Arabs increasingly began to see their rulers as American puppets. As they did, paradoxically, it was no longer in Washington’s interest to support its old allies.
George W. Bush understood this. In 2003, he declared that “60 years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence, ready for export.”
During the Cold War, the United States had no choice but to support undemocratic regimes as a bulwark against communist expansionism. Yet even after the Cold War came to an end, Arab dictators stoked Western fears of radical Islamism as a pretext to hold power indefinitely.
From 2003 to around 2006, democracy promotion was the stated U.S. policy towards the Arab world. The U.S. administration began openly criticizing Arab regimes for their lack of reforms, encouraging even allies like Egypt to move toward more democratic rule. Washington’s barbs were at times sharp enough to threaten its alliances, as in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s speech in Cairo in June 2005.
As a result, Arab reformers began demonstrating for greater freedom. Most Arab regimes greeted these democratic overtures with a combination of oppression and cosmetic reforms. Egypt allowed its first-ever multi-candidate presidential elections. Saudi Arabia introduced partial elections of local councils. Yemen’s president promised not to run again. But elections were generally rigged, anyway, and Yemen’s president eventually ran again for another term.
In late 2005 and early 2006, Washington lost momentum in its pursuit of Arab democracy. Legislative elections in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories saw substantial gains by Islamist parties. Egypt, where the regime had historically been quite adept in rigging elections, allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to win 20 percent of the seats in parliament. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas won the elections, largely as a response to the corruption of the ruling Fatah party.
Finally, in Iraq’s first elections since the U.S. had removed Saddam Hussein, a coalition of Islamist parties won, raising concerns about the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations. Meanwhile, Iraq’s security situation had hit rock bottom, and many Arabs blamed President George W. Bush for failing to build a stable, democratic regime.
Some U.S. policy makers and pundits called on the administration to weaken its democracy agenda, and to return to the “realism” that more often governed its actions during the Cold War. This meant a return to doing business with dictators, and it dealt a blow to Arabs who had bravely demonstrated in support of democratic reforms.
But Washington nonetheless established programs, such as the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), to spread democratic values. The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and other American non-profits did the same, providing training, networking and other services to Arab reformers.
When a perfect storm of economic collapse, widespread electronic communication and popular outrage coalesced into the Arab Spring earlier this year, it took many people by surprise. But it was the culmination of a process that began nearly a decade earlier.
The near-term results of these Arab uprisings may not be pretty, for Washington or the people who’ve led them. But this transformation will eventually make Arab leaders accountable to their people as never before. One way or another, the de-radicalization of the Arab world has begun.
Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former senior official in Egypt’s secular liberal Wafd party.