I endorse democratization as a goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East, but urge that it be done modestly, slowly, and cautiously. This approach sets me apart from many of my political friends and allies, who are nearly all enthusiastic about "democracy now" for the region. (For one example of my seeing things differently, see the debate at "Democracy Is about More Than Elections"; for another, see "We Free Them or They Destroy Us.")
News today from Cairo vindicates my worries about proceeding too fast. In "Egyptian Activists Turn against Israel," Hamza Hendawi of The Associated Press notes how Egypt's major democracy movement, Kifaya,
has switched causes and is now focused on demanding an end to the country's peace treaty with Israel. … The Kifaya movement has launched a campaign to collect 1 million signatures on a petition calling for the annulment of Egypt's U.S.-sponsored 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The move is mainly symbolic, but it highlights the extent of resentment felt by Egyptians toward Israel – and by association, the United States, its main backer. "The Lebanon war is responsible," said George Ishaq, Kifaya spokesman and founding member. "The petition is a reaction in part to the (Egyptian) regime's feeble diplomatic handling of the war." He said 100,000 signatures have been collected so far. …
The anti-Israel campaign is a major shift for Kifaya, whose name is Arabic for "Enough" – as in enough of the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The movement, made up of politicians, intellectuals and rights activists, burst onto Egypt's political scene two years ago, holding noisy demonstrations aimed at stopping Mubarak from seeking a fifth 6-year term in office or allowing his son, Gamal, to succeed him.
At least for a time, Kifaya's actions captured Washington's attention as a movement with the potential to peacefully bring reform. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Kifaya and other reform activists during a visit to Cairo last year. The movement succeeded in breaking down deeply ingrained political taboos, particularly by calling openly for Mubarak to step down. Its colorful street protests stirred up Egypt's stagnant politics and made democratic reform a top issue.
Still, Kifaya failed in its immediate political goals – the 78-year-old Mubarak was re-elected a year ago. Many believe his son is still on course to succeed him. Many Egyptians strongly oppose an accession to power by Gamal Mubarak, seeing it as a mere continuation of his father's rule. Now Kifaya is more concerned with Israel. On its Web site, dozens of postings expound on the pros and cons of abolishing Egypt's peace treaty. Some wrote that peace with Israel was "an illusion" and a "danger to Egyptian national security." Another said it was time for Egyptians to "struggle" against Israel.
Comments: (1) That the dictator Mubarak is a more reliable ally vis-à-vis Israel than his democratic opposition fits into a decades-long pattern of Arab politics.
(2) Kifaya, being a popular movement, cannot ignore the overwhelmingly anti-Zionist sentiments of its constituency, providing yet another reason why democracy in Egypt, as elsewhere in the region, needs to proceed modestly, slowly, and cautiously. (September 14, 2006)