We have seen this movie so many times before. Yet, somehow the script maintains the capability of keeping us in suspense. A long serving dictator seems to be a rock of stability. Experts and analysts of the nation claim that the dictatorship is in no serious danger. But then protesters begin to appear on the streets complain of grievances ranging from high food prices to the jailing of democracy activists to the lack of freedom.
We know how dictators are supposed to react to such provocations. They are supposed to use their powers of murder, torture and prison as a means of clamping down on the protesters and making the people fall into line. However, dictators rarely do the killings and torture themselves. They rely on their henchmen, their secret police and their security forces. The dictator becomes vulnerable when the henchmen, the secret police and the security forces decide to disobey the dictator’s orders. Suddenly the dictator has no clothes. The people feel empowered and emboldened.
This is the current situation we see in Egypt today. But this situation also describes many other nations not many years ago, including Spain, Poland, East Germany and South Korea to name just a few. Recently Daniel Korski interviewed former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in which they discussed the situation in Egypt.
Daniel Korski: The Middle East seems to have been taken over by a democratic spirit not seen before, with Tunisia’s Ben Ali forced from power and now Hosni Mubarak looking increasingly vulnerable. But it has obviously put the West in a bit of a bind, as it fears what the new kinds of regimes will bring. Should the West be worried? In many countries, after all, the voice of opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood – and they may take advantage of the events, even if they did not inaugurate and control them initially. Is the price of the Muslim Brotherhood in power worth accepting to set people free?
Paul Wolfowitz: Let’s be clear. We didn’t set the Tunisian people free. They did it for themselves. We should consider ourselves lucky that the Islamists can’t claim any of the credit, but neither can the Western democracies. And the Islamists are certainly hurrying to get into the game. The question now is whether the West can recover from its past inaction in order to be able to have a positive influence on the outcome.
A somewhat similar situation is developing in Egypt, although the Muslim Brotherhood is much stronger there, so the risk of a bad outcome is greater. But there, too, the strength of popular feeling seems to have taken them by surprise and the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist.
Daniel Korski: President Obama (but also the British government) has been hesitant in his reaction to the events in the Middle East. One Foreign Office minister even said the key for the UK was stability. In your view, should Western governments stand on the sidelines or offer more encouragement to the protesters and their demand for freedom?
Paul Wolfowitz: With so much at stake, it is a mistake to be sitting on the sidelines. Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety. But we can’t do that if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant, or worse, encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability” for a relatively short period of time. The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier, but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.
Daniel Korski: A few years ago you talked about “the power of the democratic idea”. Since your time in office, however, US support for democracy-promotion has been on the wane, both rhetorically and financially, while many worry that the West cannot afford to talk so loudly about its values, as we’ve become reliant on non-democratic regimes such as China. What place do you think democracy-promotion should take – in our foreign policy and aid programmes – and how do we deal with the power that non-democratic but powerful investors like China have e.g. in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Paul Wolfowitz: I’ve been involved with democratic transitions for several decades, going back to the remarkable changes that took place in East Asia in the 1980’s – in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan – followed by the incredible changes in Central and Eastern Europe and even, for a time, in Ukraine and Russia itself. That period also saw the demise of most of the right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America. Then came another wave in places as different as South Africa and Indonesia and Serbia. Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster-style democracies, but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we. Even though we often have to do business with undemocratic regimes – and even though some of those regimes do deliver economic progress for their people – it is a mistake to retreat from supporting democratic reform.
There are some conservative commentators such as Tony Blankley who believe the United States should continue to support Mubarak’s regime in order to prevent a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt. The problem with this suggestion is that dictatorships are inherently unstable because they do rely on the henchmen, the secret police and the security forces to maintain their rule. Once the “enforcers” of the dictatorship no longer see the dictator as a legitimate source of power, once they are no longer willing to kill and torture in the name of the dictator, the dictatorship will soon collapse. It is only a question of when.
But this transitional period is important for the United States. This is when the United States should make it possible for the least radical, the least extreme Egyptians get a chance to participate in the formation of the new government. This can’t be done if the United States is encouraging the dictatorship to put any and all protesters in jail or in the grave.