As pro-democracy demonstrators, autocratic rulers, and hard-line Islamist forces jockey for position across the Middle East, the region is up for grabs. No one knows how things will look when the dust settles. President Obama has a once-in-a-lifetime leadership opportunity.
Egypt received $2 billion a year in U.S. aid – including aid to the military – under Mubarak. Any future aid to Egypt’s or other emerging Middle Eastern governments should be conditional on those governments’ respect for human – and minority – rights. The United States and Europe should also help these governments to build democratic institutions and educate their people in democratic principles.
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” No doubt Egypt’s democracy, should it emerge, will not look like America’s. It may not completely separate church and state. After all, Egypt’s people, who have lived under a dictatorship for decades and who are largely Muslim, are not steeped in democratic traditions.
That is all the more reason President Obama must show leadership at this pivotal moment. Aid to Egypt should fund civics education to prepare the new generation for freedom. Programs should inculcate respect for the rights of minorities like Egypt’s Coptic Christians, one of whose priests was murdered this week. Students must be educated in the value of religious pluralism; young leaders must learn to build political parties.
The latter is especially important. According to Mithal al-Alusi, a former Iraqi parliamentarian whose Iraqi Nation Party champions human rights and normalized relations between Iraq and Israel and who is an expert at democracy-building in the region, the majority of protestors in Egypt, for example, are “good people” interested in improving their families’ lives. However, he cautions that the Muslim Brotherhood is “very organized” at building political parties – and the pro-democracy protestors are not.
In Cairo in 2009, Obama reached out to the Muslim world. He can use his Muslim-friendly credentials to support genuine Muslim moderates. Alusi proposes that Obama host a conference of Mideast liberals and moderates – soon.
As he supports democracy abroad, President Obama can exhort Americans to take renewed interest in our own democracy. Coming at a low point in most Americans’ enthusiasm for our domestic politics, the protests in the Middle East have touched hearts and minds. This is an opportunity to strengthen Americans’ commitment to the democracy we take for granted.
Let this be his JFK moment.