The Magazine

Democracy for Muslims--Sort Of

His administration's policies don't match the president's rhetoric.

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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And there is nothing wrong with CIA officers' discreetly gathering information from Algerian intelligence and security officers about Algerian-affiliated terrorist groups that have, to some extent, merged with the al Qaeda network in Western Europe. France's internal-security and intelligence services have, however, much better information on such terrorists than do the Algerians. But so far we have not heard senior U.S. officials publicly thanking the French, who gladly share their al Qaeda-related intelligence information. Nor have we heard Assistant Secretary Burns similarly praising the Israelis, from whom over the years we have learned much about Middle Eastern terrorism.

At a minimum, it is historically bizarre for a senior State Department official publicly to embrace the Algerian regime, suggesting that we are in an undifferentiated fraternal struggle against terrorism. It is certainly unlikely that Algeria's generals will view Burns's remarks and any American weapons sales as incentives to democratize. And the average Algerian probably would find Burns's comments appalling.

Assistant Secretary Burns was, of course, following precedent. Colin Powell had similarly praised the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. "Egypt, as all of us know, is really ahead of us on . . . the issue of the war on terror," averred Powell. "They've had to deal with acts of terrorism in recent years. . . . And we have much to learn from them."

It would be helpful if Secretary Powell were actually to spell out what we ought to emulate in the Egyptian modus operandi with Islamic terrorism. Truth be told, the Egyptian foreign intelligence service isn't particularly good and, like the rest of the Arab world's foreign intelligence agencies, was no more adept, and certainly less interested, than the CIA in gutting al Qaeda before 9/11. And Egypt's internal counterterrorist tactics, though less frightful than the Algerians', have been brutal. Mubarak, like the Algerian generals, scared many of his worst militants into moving abroad, where they played essential roles in developing the anti-Western creed of Osama bin Laden. Mubarak's counterterrorist strategy has, of course, another anti-American corollary. Always concerned about its own legitimacy, the regime has tolerated, if not explicitly encouraged, virulent anti-Americanism in the press, media, universities, and religious schools as an escape valve for its citizenry's numerous frustrations. What is it then in Mubarak's Egypt that we are to study admiringly?

As Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami has pointed out, President Mubarak quickly saw the Grand Canyon-sized bilateral possibilities in Secretary Powell's remarks. "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy," Mubarak appreciatively replied. "Democracy" Egyptian style doesn't encompass free elections or political freedom. Indeed, President Mubarak and his minions saw individual liberty as a root cause of September 11: In Egypt, radical Muslims go to jail by the thousand; they don't get to fly back and forth to and from Europe.

Mubarak and the Algerian generals know--and so does Secretary Powell--that the United States isn't going to pressure them into any democratic experiment. One is struck by the voluntary nature of the Bush administration's democratic aspirations for the Muslim world. We would like Muslims to be free, but we want Muslim dictators through a process of self-examination to discover for themselves the blessings of democracy for their people. Though history isn't littered with dictators reborn as democrats, the State Department appears to be hoping that the awful state of affairs in the Middle East--poverty, poor schooling, a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West and East Asia--will somehow scare repressive regimes into diminishing their hold on power.

Secretary Powell summed up the ethos of our new pro-democracy initiative in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

So we are not dictating [about democracy in Saudi Arabia]. We are not telling them how they should do it or who they should look like. . . . Each [of our friends in the Middle East] has its own system, each will have to make its own judgment as to whether it will change, how fast it will change, and we hope that we can help influence them as to how change comes about and what change might be better. . . . [But] there is no suggestion of regime change. . . . This is an initiative to help . . . governments who are inclined toward change.