The events of the past weeks have brought to the fore the tenuous nature of new democratic transitions in the Middle East and the role of the U.S. in its engagement with the region. A debate has emerged regarding principles of freedom of speech, incitement, and the nature of U.S. democracy promotion. Some have attributed the recent anti-American violence to broader discontent with political transition and prolonged economic distress, among other local explanations, while others have fallen back on the “clash of civilizations” argument. Playing less prominently in the debate, however, is the issue of how the U.S. conducts diplomacy with transitioning countries such as Egypt, and how the U.S. defines the type of governance that it supports.
Considering Egypt, the public exchange between governments following the violent protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo highlighted the ambiguity of the current U.S. policy of democracy promotion, particularly in transitioning countries. The U.S. government has demonstrated its support for the Arab public’s call for democratic transition, but it has faltered in its public messaging regarding what type of democracy it advocates. It is not the responsibility of the U.S. government to direct such transitions; however, it should not equivocate regarding the principles that lead to a true, functioning democratic government and society. The label of “democracy” cannot be loosely applied, as the American definition of “democracy” still holds significant weight.
Certain statements by top U.S. officials are somewhat encouraging. Following President Morsi’s election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated at a press conference in Helsinki, “One election does not a democracy make. That’s just the beginning of the hard work. And the hard work requires pluralism, respecting the rights of minorities, independent judiciary, independent media…They have to write a constitution.” More recently, President Obama explained in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly, “True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and that businesses can be open without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear, and on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.”
Public statements, however, are not enough. Firm stances on the values shared by true democracies must be upheld publicly and privately, and reflected in the conditioning and appropriation of aid. Some political groups may find such values unpalatable, but mixed messaging between public statements and private actions only provides more room for interpretation, or selective interpretation.
“When discussing democracy, human rights and freedoms should not be treated as culturally relative values.” – Lauren Emerson, Fikra Forum
Ambiguity surrounding our standards for democracy abroad has allowed for misinterpretation that could have dire consequences for both Egyptian citizens and for U.S. interests. Take, for example, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s clear rhetoric suggesting that Western values cannot be applied to Egypt’s new democracy. In an interview with the New York Times, Morsi stated, “When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the U.S. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt.” The U.S. should be clear that such a sentiment may apply to policies, but not to basic rights and freedoms, which are regarded by the United Nations as universal rather than country — or culture — specific. A clearer articulation of democracy and the principles associated with it would perhaps discourage such relativism when it comes to universal values.
Rather than merely accepting and rewarding the victors of a single election, the U.S. government, through public and private messaging, should stand up for democracy more broadly by clearly articulating the values and principles that we stand firmly behind and look for in others’ transitions. When discussing democracy, human rights and freedoms should not be treated as culturally relative values. For example, blasphemy laws are in fundamental contradiction to freedom of speech and thus are not an appropriate product of a truly democratic society, and the U.S. government should not be shy about articulating this.
Until now, U.S. engagement with Egypt has suggested that the American definition of democracy is limited to a government whose leadership is determined by the will of the people through free and fair elections. Elections have been the primary focus, leading many — newly elected leaders and U.S. policymakers alike — to act as though that the hard work has been done and that, through elections, the new government has both local and international legitimacy. Given this affirmation, new political actors in Egypt have been given leeway during a process perhaps more important to the long-term survival of democracy: the drafting of a constitution. There is a widespread concern among Egyptian minorities and human rights groups that the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the new constitution is not widely representative and risks limiting the rights of certain segments of the population, leaving the articulation of constitutional rights open to loose interpretation.
While U.S. officials are more accustomed to conducting government-to-government diplomacy, more must be done to demonstrate support for Egyptian civil society and to engage meaningfully with a broader range of actors — that is, to support not only Egyptians’ chosen representatives, but also those who are working toward the democratic values that lead to future elections and a more pluralistic society. An Egyptian democratic transition ultimately must come over time and from within, with a popular understanding of democratic principles, and a constitution that upholds these fundamental principles. The U.S. government cannot dictate to the people of the region, but it can and should be upfront and honest about what it stands for and supports, and about what it rejects, as Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans navigate the bumpy road to democracy.
This post was originally published under a similar headline on Fikra Forum.
The viewpoint expressed here is the author’s own and is not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you disagree with the author of this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. Also, you may e-mail us through our Submit Page with a short proposal for a Counterpoint. Our policy is to run Counterpoint essays as often as possible. Should our editors accept your proposal, they will be in touch with you on how you can submit your full essay. Once published, a link to your alternative perspective will also be added to the original post.
Lauren Emerson is the managing editor of Fikra Forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.