Egypt, democracy and Richard Cohen
02/01/2011 - 16:49
James Besser

 I've read a lot of ominous words about the chaos in Egypt and the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that now look like they will end the 30-year reign of this democrat-in-name-only. But nothing comes close in grimness to Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post.

The way Cohen sees it, any move toward democracy in Egypt will inevitably empower those groups that want to end the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty and rejoin the effort to get rid of that pesky Jewish state.

“The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare,” Cohen writes. “I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.”

True enough. And we've seen what can happen when we demand truly democratic elections in Middle Eastern cultures steeped in hate – to wit, Gaza in 2006.

But it strikes me that this is an argument about what was happening a few years back, when former President George W. Bush was confronting Mubarak about his abuse of democracy and demanding significant reforms (demands which the Bush administration quickly forgot).

The issue today isn't whether pressing for democracy is a good thing or not; it's about how to find ways to work with what comes next in a convulsed, chaotic Egypt.

It's about retaining a measure of credibility among an angry Egyptian public that long ago learned to discount U.S. words of sympathy for their plight.

It's about examining some of our other relations in the region to determine if we're heading down the same road with them (think Saudi Arabia here).

And it's about working on strategies now for preserving the Israeli-Egyptian peace in the uncertain environment we're likely to find ourselves in tomorrow. Anything that undermines that peace would be a catastrophe for Israel, and we'd better start figuring out now what we're going to do to protect it.

It's easy to think up convincing sounding reasons for supporting corrupt, repressive, autocratic regimes in the name of pragmatism. Much harder is finding ways to cope with the historic fact that such support has often come back to bite us and undermine the very goals we thought we were advancing.

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