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Egypt, Elections, and Freedom

In their hopeful posts on Egypt, Peter and Jonathan both cited Natan Sharansky’s Wall Street Journal interview, in which the author of The Case for Democracy asserted the developments in Egypt are positive. As Jonathan noted, Caroline Glick takes a different view; she sees Egyptian society as riddled with anti-Semitism, with pictures from the current demonstrations ignored by the mainstream media.

Daniel Greenfield takes Glick’s argument even further. In “What if the Problem Really Is the People?” he suggests that the problem runs much deeper than the current dictator:

Mubarak is the problem, we are told. … If not for him, Egypt would be a liberal model for the region. Just like Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. But is it the dictator or the people who are the problem?

Elections are relatively easy to organize; establishing freedom is a little harder, since it requires countervailing institutions that protect minorities and dissenters, and the existence of a civil society that values them. The polls Greenfield cites suggest that Egypt neither has such a society now nor is likely to have one soon.

In her February 6 briefing for the traveling press, Hillary Clinton touted Egypt as a model for the region (“Egypt has the chance to, once again, lead the way”) and described the U.S. position as follows:

We want to see a process begun that will lead to an orderly transition that has milestones and concrete steps that lead us toward free and fair elections that install a new president who reflects the will and wishes of the Egyptian people.

We know from too many bad experiences — including the 2006 Palestinian election — that free elections are not guarantees the “moderates” will win, or that the winners will hold another one. It is good to read so many assurances that the Muslim Brotherhood represents only a minority, but the same thing was said about Hamas in 2006 just before the election that astonished Condoleezza Rice.

It is to George W. Bush’s enduring credit that he did not simply remove Saddam but stayed to produce a representative government in the heart of the Arab world. But that experience should be a lesson that a commitment much greater than simply shepherding an orderly transition toward elections is required. Sharansky made precisely that point, saying “really free elections” in Egypt will require years of democracy-building and a U.S. commitment to linkage modeled on the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment is needed.

Is Obama prepared to make that commitment? At the end of Peter’s eloquently optimistic post, he notes there are two possible theories about Obama’s inclinations and that we do not know which is correct. It is remarkable that, more than halfway through Obama’s term, we do not know what his real intentions are.

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