Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Egypt Needs Now

Is it presumptuous of an American blogger to post an entry with a title like that? Probably. But I've heard a lot of talk about how Americans--specifically, the political elite--think that we call it a revolution? in Egypt ought to go, and I think that it's a lot more presumptuous to think you have a say in the outcome of another country's elections than to talk a little bit about what meaningful reform might look like.

American policymakers do not have a say in the outcome of any elections that take place in Egypt or anywhere else. Established democracies might be of help in ensuring that elections are truly free and fair. And if those elections are free and fair, we don't get to decide that the government that results isn't legitimate simply because we don't like it. America does not have a right to ensure that Egypt's next government will be pro-western. Look up sovereignty--it means that a state has a fundamental right to seek its own interests. An ally isn't a foreign state that we control; a true ally is a sovereign state whose interests coincide with ours, such that we can cooperate on pursuing those common interests. But to think that our allies' interests should be determined by or subordinate to our policy goals is an example of the kind of arrogance that has undermined goodwill toward the United States all around the world.

It's a lesson we haven't learned even after decades of propping up brutal dictators because we fear what democracy will bring. Instead, we should courageously embrace democracy every place that it takes root, trusting that if we work in genuine partnership with our democratic allies, we may not get everything we want, when we want it, but we can be secure in the knowledge that we haven't sold our freedom-loving souls for the promise of cooperation today and the risk of enmity tomorrow.

There's been a lot of talk about the need for meaningful reform in Egypt, and some discussion of the timing. Yes, faster would be better. And dictator Hosni Mubarak's declaration last night that he intends to serve out his term in office so that he can make sure to shape the reform process and determine what sort of government will follow him is clearly unacceptable. It's a transparent attempt to consolidate state power, perhaps in hopes of passing the baton to his son, but certainly in hopes of making sure that the form of government he has maintained over nearly thirty years will not fundamentally change. That's not good enough for the citizens of Egypt, and it shouldn't be good enough for anyone who values government by the people, for the people.

What should meaningful reform look like? In a country which, on paper, already has a robust democracy (Fun fact: Egypt's constitution was modeled after those of France and the United States), how can the next generation of leaders secure the hard-won gains of the movement now under weigh? I have a few suggestions.

1. Clear separation of powers. The powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Egypt's government are too muddled up. The most vivid example of this is the fact that no candidate can stand for election to the presidency unless parliament approves. The party that controls parliament controls the presidency--and the president who controls that party controls the country. The opposition doesn't get a look in.

2. No proscribed political parties. Or, at the very least, clear and specific criteria for which parties may be banned. A political group that isn't engaging in any violent acts and wishes to participate in the democratic process must be allowed to do so. There's no such thing as democracy in a one-party system. No single leader or party is ever going to get it right all the time; when those with opposing views are able to mount a genuine electoral challenge, the people win every time.

3. Limits on police power. Americans take this for granted. If the cops want to arrest you, they have to show probable cause. They don't even get to beat a confession out of you. And you get to see the evidence against you, seek the advice of an attorney, and have a real trial. Democracy in Egypt won't survive long unless Egyptians secure the same rights, with the backing of an independent judiciary (see point 1 above).

This stuff is all so fundamental that my American readers will think I've gone off my rocker for even bringing it up. But anyone who's lived in Egypt in the last thirty years knows that these fundamentals will have to be secured for the future of the country. There's so much more I could talk about...the corruption, the poverty, the crumbling infrastructure. But if you've got to put out the fire before you rebuild the house, think of these three points as my idea of a fire hose.

And not a fire hose that's turned on the protesters.

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