Egypt and the US "We Know Best" Syndrome

With countries across the Middle East now teetering between stability and change, it is hard to tell what President Obama means when he invokes the concept of stability.
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The American "We know best" attitude favoring President Mubarak's continued reign contradicts the evidence that Egyptians favor "change" over "stability."

Egypt isn't the only place where US policy dances between a ruthless rigid "stability" and a chaotic "change" featuring riots and street violence.

In Afghanistan, the US articulates a stabilization mission. But Afghans aren't certain that stabilizing the Karzai government's corruption is the best strategy. How can the US hope to foster democracy in countries if the peoples in those countries have no input into US strategy?

A US military colonel asked the State Department authors of US policy in Afghanistan which Afghans had been consulted in the development of this policy. "Well, none sir" they responded. "Did you look at polling data of Afghan perceptions?" the colonel asked. State Department authors responded, "No sir."

US civilian doctrine on stabilization, written by the US Institute of Peace, defines the term as applying to efforts to help a country move from violent conflict to peace. It rightly describes stabilization aimed at achieving a safe and secure environment, rule of law, governance that allows people to share, access or compete for power through nonviolent political processes and to enjoy the collective benefits and services of the state, a sustainable economy and more generally social well-being where people coexist peacefully. Others describe stabilization as basic human security, the very definition of a sustainable peace.

But with countries across the Middle East now teetering between stability and change, it is harder to tell what President Obama means when he invokes the concept of stability.

The US seems to favor "stability" and "stabilization" when it is in perceived US interests. With Chile's dictator Pinochet, El Salvador and Guatemala's ruling families and in too many other places to mention, the US has favored stability even while the millions of people in these countries wanted change and anyone uttering anything about human rights was brutally tortured and killed.

These countries found democracy despite US support for dictators repressing freedoms. The book and video series A Force More Powerful documents the democratization movements led by regular people. History shows displays of "people power" are far more successful in bringing about stability than military force. In the words of South Africa's Desmond Tutu, "When people make up their mind to be free, there is nothing that can stop them."

It is not clear that Americans have decided what stabilization to support and what to reject. Are US national interests in human rights, democracy and freedom at the core of what it means to protect the American way of life? Or do corporate interests in cheap oil, bananas or geopolitical interests take precedence when they are under siege.

In September 2004, the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Board issued a strategic communications report written for then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Pentagon experts concluded, "Muslims do not 'hate our freedoms,' but rather they hate U.S. policies." US military experts concluded, "Muslims see American policies as inimical to their values, American rhetoric about freedom and democracy as hypocritical, and American actions as deeply threatening [to their interests]."

Sometimes narrowly defined US economic and political national interests are in conflict with the human security interests of regular citizens. Who decides which are most important?

Washington decided to support the people of Tunisia's efforts to throw out their unpopular government, but is not supporting the call for Egyptian President Mubarak's resignation since this would upset US national interests in the region.

The US walks a fine line between democracy and freedom rhetoric on the one hand, and geo-political interests on the other.

In the case of Egypt, President Obama's call for "stability" is unsettling. This "we know what's best for you" attitude undermines US calls for democracy. It is not the place of the US to stand behind their dictator and tell them they need stability. US national interests are only valid as long as they do not undermine the basic human security of people abroad.

It is time the US asks Egypt's President to step down and offers to help set up free and fair elections.

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