Apr 29, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Let’s All Feign Surprise Over Democracy Promotion

If you stick around you’ll see that it’s going to be Friedman-palooza here on D&S today, a concept which would normally nauseate me. But the NYT’s mustachioed bloviator-in-chief did touch on some excellent topics this week, namely the elephant in the room among foreign democracy promoters concerning Egypt.

“When the U.S. decides to just give away the military aid to Egypt without considering the consequences on us,” Okail told me, “it sends a message that the West and the U.S. don’t care about democracy and human rights. They just care about strategic stability. We, the defendants, felt betrayed. The battle we fight standing in that cage, hearing calls for our execution, is not a battle for our freedom but a battle for liberating Egyptian civil society.”

Okail referred to here is Dr. Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House’s Egypt office. Okail, an Egyptian citizen, is imprisoned by the SCAF and facing trial long after the military council freed the Americans it charged with stirring unrest. Suffering the inexplicable ramifications of an objectively good deed–building civil society, strengthening the party system, and just giving Egypt a hand transitioning into a well-functioning and fair democracy–Okail and her compatriots are rightly shaken.

But pay attention to the seeming betrayal that Okail is feeling now. Why is this, partially for someone working directly with a group like Freedom House but especially for an American like Friedman who observes them, such a hard and abrupt landing? It has long been painfully obvious that the U.S. only does promote democracy in locales and contexts where it strengthens, as she puts it, American “strategic stability.”

Consider Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. By critically evaluating each country’s political freedoms and civil liberties, it makes a extremely unbiased judgement of both U.S. allies and nemesis. In the 2011 report, Saudi Arabia received a much-deserved 6.5 “Freedom Rating” (out of 7–I’ll let you guess which way the scale points) as well as rebukes on the country’s widespread corruption, government control of academia and press, unlawful detentions, treatment of women, and torture. Freedom House takes out all the stops, using words that U.S. government figureheads would never say in any Middle East speech.

But where does Freedom House operate? Not Saudi Arabia. Take a look at their office locations, all in relatively tame but strategic places around the world. Cameroon, for instance, a sought-after AFRICOM center in the natural resources hub of the Gulf of Guinea. Kyrgyzstan, home to U.S. air fleets and a peg in the complex Central Asian counterterror operation. Mexico, whose strategic stability as an American neighbor goes without saying.

We are much, much better off with groups like Freedom House than we are without them. Indeed, it is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to operate democracy promotion efforts everywhere, and Freedom House has excellently chosen locales where their programming has been effective and, until Egypt, more or less well-received. As a student of democracy promotion myself, I support this. I honestly do. But I always, even subconsciously, remember the inherent linkages between government-supported NGO activity and strategic interests. That’s just the way it is.

I suppose I get Friedman’s approach to encouraging Americans to keep a critical eye on U.S. foreign policy. He causes cognitive dissonance by setting up a simple example, like Okail in her prison cell, and compares it to our ideals, like the U.S. helping everyone get a fighting chance at democracy. And, sure, most  NYT readers probably aren’t international democracy buffs. But there is so much more to the story than, like he says, “stand[ing] up firmly for our own values.” And it’s a shame that although he says the mouthpiece to say it, he doesn’t.

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3 Comments

  • Ouch, Geneve. You’ve become quite the realist. I think Friedman makes a solid point. It is sickeningly hypocritical for the US government to spend millions on freeing US citizens working to promote democracy in Egypt, but letting the Egyptians who were taking the bigger risk rot in prison.

  • [...] want to miss the chance to continue the Friedman-palooza trend that I had agreed on with my esteemed colleague here. So I must comment on Thomas Friedman’s other piece that captured our attention this past week, [...]

  • [...] must definitely make a movie out of this. The trial of the Egyptians, Americans and other foreign democracy-promoters charged with (basically) stirring [...]

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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