Outlook: Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world

Feb 01, 2011

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, will be online Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world.'

This is Elliott Abrams, and I'll start answering questions now.

Can you point to any recent revolts in the Arablic world that led to a non religous, non fundamental, democracy? Haven't all the dictatorships been replaced by religious fundamentalists that are as or more dangerous than the dictatorships they replaced?

There aren't really many relevant comparisons. Certainly Tunisia has not been taken over by what we might call fundamentalists; Iran was, but that's not an Arab country.  In any event, the answer canot be endless dictatorships.  It has to be efforts to help moderate parties grow in strength.  Mubarak crushed them for 30 years and led Egypt into the current situation.

Mr. Abrams, Great piece, I really enjoyed it and found is insightful. I don't have a question, just want to wish you luck against the liberal venom that is sure to be unleashed on this chat. Good luck!

Thanks.  We'll see if you're right  in the next hour.

Your defense of Bush's Middle East policy doesn't seem very rational. If President Bush ever had Egypt in mind when he spoke about democracy in the region (assuming, for benefit of the doubt, that his words were sincere), why didn't he simply take the simple step of cutting off aid to Egypt? Why not just apply pressure directly to Egypt? How does it make any coherent sense to invade Iraq in the hopes that a war there then leads to a series of further seismic shifts that eventually bring about the fall of an authoritarian regime in Egypt 8 years and 5 countries later? That's a 47-step process to get a 2-step result that would have made the Ottomans proud. Mubarak has always been an American ally. There's no evidence that anything that happened in Iraq had any effect on Egypt (or Tunisia). Perhaps next you'd like to claim that our invasion of Grenada encouraged the Eastern Europeans to overthrow the Warsaw Pact? Thanks.

President Bush didn't invade Iraq to free Egypt.  But he certainly did press Mubarak to make reforms.  Why not cut off aid? Economic aid was meant to help the poor, so why not cut off military aid?  The Pentagon was very much opposed to that, but I think we should have at least  reduced the aid to signal that we thought the dictatorship could not go on forever.

Dear Mr. Abrams Should the Muslim Brotherhood win in a free election in Egypt, how will the US protect its interests in reference to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel? Also, as you mentioned in your article, Can the US rely on new regimes in the Middle East to assist in the war on terror, in particular regimes that represent Islamists parties?

These are central questions and we don't know the answers yet.  But the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaida and hasn't engaged in terrorism for decades. An Egypt where it is very influential will have a colder relationship with Israel and with the US, but I do not believe it would abrogate the treaty between Israel and Egypt.  The thing is we really do not know how much support they will get in a free election--since Egypt hasn't ever had one.

Gee, we had elections in Gaza and who won? Come, admit it, your idea of democracy in the Muslim world views as legitimate only those elections that benefit Israel. The same Hamas that Israel nurtured in the 1980s. So where's your support of that democratically-elected government? Sen. Ron Paul is right. We need to dump Israel now.

By "elections in Gaza" I imagine you mean the elections in Gaza and the West bank in 2006.  Hamas won 44% to Fatah's 41%.  The EU and we took the position that Hamas could run but could not govern unless they abandoned terrorism and laid down their guns. They refused.  We don't support groups that win elections if they insist on continuing to engage in terrorism.

You guys never give up with your mission to re-invent the history of George W Bush. How many dots did you have to connect to come up this most recent view?

All you need to do is read the speeches.  Especially relevant are the 2003 National Endowment f0r Democracy speech and the Second Inaugural.

During Bush's administration, Egypt was one of the destinations for the CIA rendition program. Didn't you utiliize Mubarik's repressive regime when it served your purpose?

I don't know about the rendition program, but for 30 years the US certainly did cooperate with the Mubarak regime on lots of matters of common interest in the Middle East.  We'll pay a great price for that now, for Egyptians see us as firm pillars of support for a regime they hated. 

Mr. Abrams, thank you for this article. I completely agree with you. My question is, do you have any comment on the "Palestinian papers" as made public recently by al-Jazeera describing the role, methods, and PA's position vis-a-vis Hamas given that Pres. Abbas along with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia rushed to reassure Pres. Mubarak for their support calling the protester "hooligans" while in your article they [the protesters] appear to be the standard bearers of "freedom and human rights"? Thank you!

The Palestine Papers are a separate subject for another time.  But it isn't so surprising that the Saudi king would view the protesters as bad guys.  If I am right and most of them want democracy and free elections, it figures that the Saudi royals think that's a terrible idea.

What can the US do to help the various governments to create democratic parties to help push for real freedom. I think that many of the current leaders understand that the game has changed but they are afraid that their countries will be lost to Islamic radicals.

Many of the current leaders are responsible for our problem, for they have crushed moderate opponents.  We and the Europeans can help, and we do try to help, through the National Endowment for democracy and the institutes run by both our political parties, by advising new democratic and moderate parties on how to get started, win support, communicate with members and potential members, and the like. 

Sec. Abrams: How large a role did food prices take in igniting the tinder box in the middle east? Seems like it played the same role as it does state-side. Egypt's dependent on imports: if the cost is too high, this is going to create riots.

It mattered, although Mubarak was always sensitive to this and had a complex system of subsidies to cushion the costs.  More broadly, what mattered was the sense in Egypt that the rich were becoming hugely rich and nothing was getting to the people.

Like many other despotic regimes around the world, Mubarak has been propped up all these years in a big part by bipartisan US military aid. How can you manage to completely ignore this fact in your long opinion on the issue?

The US started giving military aid after the Israeli-Egyptian peace.  It was not a mistake to do that.  It was a mistake not to condition some of it on democratic reforms, or to cut some of it to show we were serious.  But anyway, Mubarak would have been able to stay in power without that aid. After all, the dictatorships in Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc etc manage to stay in power and we don't give them a cent.

South Korea, Taiwan and Chile, all achieved decades of impressive economic growth under authoritarian regimes. Could it be that Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen's authoritarian governments failed to do the same because they didn't have a sound economic plan? Seriously, how can you justify that liberty is a prerequisite for economic growth?

Liberty isn't always a prerequisite, as we saw in South Korea and Chile.  But the absence of liberty often warps an economy, due to corruption; this happened in Tunisia for sure. 

How do you explain the tension between Bush's vision of the universality of liberty as eloquently quoted in your op-ed piece - "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?" - and the fact that most of the Mid-East despots owe their secure positions to USA political, financial and military support?

I don't think they "owe their position" to our support.  We didn't put the Egyptian regime in power--Nasser did.  Nor did we put the en Ali Tunisian regime, or the Syrian, or the Libyan regime in power. But as Bush said, we stayed with people like Mubarak and Ben Ali too long, tinking tey meant stability.  It was a false stability, as we have seen clearly now.

I don't have a question, but want to say thank you to you for your article. God bless you.

Many thanks!

Since when is it okay for a news article to polarize its audience not just in content, but right in the title? Where do you think unbiased journalism has gone?

My article was not a news article, but an opinion piece.  That's why it wasn't in the news pages.

How can the Obama Administration use this to parlay an advance of potential peace talks involving Israel? Meaning, if the "people" are receptive to democracy would they perhaps be more receptive to "peace with Israel" and how can this better the prospect of peace in the Middle East?

I am afraid I am not optimistic here.  With the Palestinin leaders reeling from release of the "Palestine Papers" and the Israelis worried about developments in Lebanon and Egypt, nothing is going to move.  The views of the average Egyptian on all this are not clear because there has been no freedom of speech or press there, nor free elections, but one can assume most Egyptians are very hostile to Israel.

Do you really think that Mr. Bush was honest when he said that ? What is the result of his fortels in oppressed Iraq , which lost everything : a torn nation, a looted wealth,moving backwards in all aspects of life, etc...?

He was sincere, and we don't know the final outcome in Iraq yet.  They have the beginnings of a democratic system and have had several rounds of free elections.

You make Bush out to be the good guy and Obama the bad guy, faulting the latter in saying that "U.S. officials talked to Mubarak plenty in 2009 and 2010, and even talked to the far more repressive President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but they talked about their goals for Israeli-Palestinian peace and ignored the police states outside the doors of those presidential palaces." In point of fact, did the Bush administration do anything different with respect to these regimes?

If you read Sec. Rice's 2005 speech, made in Cairo, she frankly spoke about these issues and called for freedom in Egypt.  Egyptian human rights anddemocracy activists typically say they have felt abandoned by the US in the last 2 years.  I would agree that the Bush Administration should have pushed even harder. 

Heaven is going to fall. Does this approach to freedom for all apply to the Palestinians who have suffered under occupation for 40 years?

US policy since President Bush in 2001 has been to support creation an independent, democratic Palestinian state.

Hi Elliott, enjoyed your piece. How can we square the "Freedom Agenda" with American support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia? Do you agree that we should scrap the planned $60 billion U.S. arms deal with the Saudi regime? Or should we continue to arm and support the Saudis as they suppress women, religious minorities, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and virtually all political freedoms? All the best, James Standish

We should be far more honest about the nature of that regime.  We sometimes are, in the US Government's annual human rights and religious freedom reports. 

Mr. Abrams, You wrote a very insightful and candid report on Bush's foresight -- if you can call it that -- but strayed when you implied Obama isn't quite that insightful and forceful about the middle east. Question: Do you really think you're smarter than Obama?

I have never met President Obama.  But I would say the question you ask is the wrong question.  I am not interested in a president's IQ, but in his performance in office.  It may be that Obama has a higher IQ than Ronald Reagan had, but so what?  Reagan will be recorded by history as a far greater president. 

.. But I think that change and freedom come this time from inside and by citizen, nobody has right to say that he did or push, even politic's or religious parties done something to change, Arab's young and social internet did well than all world, right?

You're right-- it has to come from inside a society.  But we have to decide which side we're on, and if we are asked to help those struggling for freedom, we should.

What will this mean for minorities in these countries. The Arab world has never been too kind to minorities in majority Arab state. Will there be any freedom for them?

If I were an Egyptian Coptic Christian, I would be worried--and they are.  The Muslim Brotherhood claims it favors full rights for non-Muslims, but it also wants a far larger role for Islam in the society and the state. 

Two part question: What did the Bush administration do to encourage the Israeli government to treat it Arab and Palestinian citizens equally, and would you argue that the efforts were successful?

The Administration pushed the treatment of Palestinians constantly, and there are lots of public comments by Bush and Rice on the subject.  Successful? Yes, if you look at the West Bank today life is considerably better than it was 5 or 10 years ago.

Just to clarify, would you advocate a reduction of traditional diplomacy in favor of speaking directly to the citizens of the Middle East? How might we circumvent the censorship that exists in this region?

The problem with traditional diplomacy is that it is directed at governments.  In cases where the government is repressive, we need to have more tools at our disposal.  Censorship ain't what it used to be, given the internet and various "social media."  The problem in Egypt was not censorship of our support for freedom, but the weakness of our message.

Hello, I wonder if it's that people want freedom or if they want opportunity and economic security. If I'm not mistaken, there isn't much pro-democracy agitation in Qatar or the UAE, so is it all about freedom? Granted, those two places are more open than Egypt, but both nations developed economically and freedoms followed.

I think people want oportunity, and security, and freedom.  The Founding Fathers understood that fully. But in dictatorships they don't have security because there is no law, just rule by fiat.  Certainly there will be broader support for even a dictatorship if people are getting richer: see China.   The Gulf monarchies are different, partly because they have so very few citizens and are populated mostly by guest workers.

Mr. Abrams, you seem keenly aware that regimes relying on police and military forces are bad for stability. Why did you support police in military forces in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, during the 1980s, when the peoples of those nations were seeking to throw off repressive military regimes? Don't you find it contradictory that you condemn Obama for doing "too little, too late" in supporting pro-democracy forces in Egypt, but you did all you could to stop the forces of freedom in Central America in the 1980s?

The communist guerrillas in those countries in the 1980s, supported by the Soviet Union and Cubna, were certainly not fighting for freedom.  Democracy in the region required opposing and defeating them or there would simply have been more Cubas.  It also meant pushing for democracy, as we did, and Christian Democrats for example soon won fre elections in El Salvador and Guatemala. 

What about the Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Egypt does not have any, fortunately.

Elliott, While it is easy to laud Bush pointing to Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, that is a selective example. Let's start with "examples" of democracy, like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these have "democracies" and have been "liberated." The problem is they are showing themselves just an inept. Also, around the globe democracies flounder more than prosper, Pakistan, Indonesia, Fiji, 90% of Africa, South America, Mexico, etc. Please, can you provide, outside of Europe and North America, an pattern of successful democracy growing? It appears to be more an exception (Sth Africa), rather than a rule.

Building a democracy is hard; it certainly took us time. But Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and several additional cases in Africa show that it is possible.  It is of course much harder when literacy is low and poverty is high, but India did it.

I fail to see the connection between a couple of speeches by George W. Bush and the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Obviously, the peculiar events on the ground in those two countries were much more important that anything the United States did. Giving credit to the United States is almost narcissistic and demeaning to the efforts put forth by individuals in Tunisia and Egypt.

You misread my message.  We don't get credit for bringing democracy to Tunisia or anyplace else.  But there is an issue as to which side we are on and what we say and do--not because it's going to be determinative but because it says a lot about us. 

Sir, How should the U.S. proceed when 1) we are concerned that abandoning Mubarak would diminish our credibility with other foreign leaders 2) we know that any void in power is bound, at least initially, to be filled by religious groups (given the fact that they are already organized)?

Your second question points out Mubarak's terrible impact: he crushed centrists and left Egypt without strong moderate groups.  We should do what we can prior to the election they will surely be having to help such groups grow stronger.  As to other leaders, we should privately tell them Mubarak became hated by the Egyptian people, who did not want him for 30 years and his son for another 30.  We should ask them what they are doing to avoid a similar fate.

How much effect might the overthrow of a long term ruler in Tunisia may have inspired people two countries over to realize they may do the same thing in Egypt?

I think Tunisia was the trigger for Egypt. 

About what percent of the Egyptian population wishes to continue the treaty with Israel, and about what percent wish to break it?

I don't have poll data, but I think most Egyptians are very hostile toward Israel.  Whether they actually wish to abrogate the treaty is a different matter. 

It has been reported that the demonstrators are not expressing anti-American sentiments. While I presume the demonstrators have not been expressing a collective uniform sentiment, what has been expressed about the future of Egypt towards the United States. What is the popularity of the United States amongst the Egyptian people?

Mixed.  Most view us as having backed Mubarak and backing Israel, and they don't like that.  But they also know that America is a democracy and an open society and they admire the country in many ways.  Try offering visas and we'd see a huge rush to grab them.

As demonstrations have broken out in Tunisia and Egypt, are there any rumblings in any other countries with long term rulers, such as Libya or Saudia Arabia, or are things mostly quiet in other countries?

The King of Jordan reacted to some rumblings today, by firing the Prime Minister and cabinet.  There have been demonstrations in Yemen, and calls for them on February 5 in Syria.  But there have been no such rumblings visible in Saudia Arabia or Libya.

I believe that Natan Sharansky has recognized that the U.S. had to support nondemocratic regimes in order to wage the wider cold war against the Soviet Union. Can the U.S. work with nondemocratic regimes in the wider war against Islamic extremists, while simultaneously undermining those regimes by supporting democratic movements?

By pushing Mubarak for democratic reforms, I don't think we were "undermining his regime."   I think we were telling him that his long-term survival depended on reform, and we were right.  We can and do work with non-democratic regimes every day, but we can insist on the right to speak about our values and beliefs.

How can you have so thoroughly rationalized the position of George Bush to take ownership for the current calls for true representation? What happened to Hamas? Look at the amount of foreign aid given and how it is given during his administration and before. Do you honestly believe that if Egypt votes in a group mostly backed by the Muslim Brotherhood that he would have respected that choice or have done everything they could to prevent it? I think no. I think you would get teh same reaction that Israel is now giving...more fear tactics...and zero democracy.

When Hamas won 44% of the vote in 2006, the US did not say it could have no political role.  We said it could--once it agreed to abandon terrorism and accept Israel's right to exist. The Europeans and Russians said the same thing.  Hamas refused. 

Some critics have stated that the Bush administration's pro-democracy position, which you praise in your piece, failed to sufficiently push Mubarak to to release Ayman Nour, the Egyptian dissident. Your response. Thom Walnut Creek, Ca

Bush met with Nour's wife, and pressed for his release.  Rice once cancelled a visit to Egypt over his imprisonment.  And in the end he was released.

Turkey's effect has becoming bigger in the middle east day by day. Do you think that Turkey and its charismatic leader Erdogan can help paving the way for better administrations and democracy in the middle east? In addition, Turkey's growth and developing popularity can be seen as a danger at the expense of U.S. ineterests?

Erdogan's strong pressures against a free press worry me a good deal.  He is trying to stop media that oppose or criticize his government.  Turkey's growing popularity is coming partly at our expense, for Erdogan has made it a point to distance Turkey from its close alliance with us.

First, what was former President Bush right about? Second, if he was right about anything, what did he do to act on it?

I can't add much to the article I wrote.  

Are you claiming the invasion of Iraq with 4000 American dead was the impetus for Egypt's present turmoil and it was worth the 4000 American fatalities?

Nope.  The trigger for Iraq was Tunisia.  The deeper reason was 30 years of one-man rule.  The turning point was the November 2010 parliamentary election, stolen by the regime.  It was worse than the 2005 election, so Egyptians saw their country going backwards--and looking forward to 30 more years of a Mubarak under his son.

What about Israel? Aren't they better off with Mubarak in power than an unknown that might not be so restrained in regard to Tel Aviv?

They may be better off with Mubarak in power but they don't get to make the decision.  And the less they say about it publicly, the better.

What are the reactions of the Syrian government to these events? Do they appear worried about their own internal difficulties and that these events could complicate both their internal and state affairs?

They must wonder what Syrians really think about the regime, but the organs of repression are very strong and very vicious.  I take Asad's interview in the Wall Street Journal yesterday to be a response, and he talked about change and reform.  I believe it's all lies.

After Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003, Ukrainia's Orange Revolution in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005, Russia enacted tough legislation against NGOs, allegedly aimed at preventing foreign efforts to support political opposition movements. Isn't it likely that if a government takes a strong public stance supporting foreign revolutions, that other foreign dictators will brace themselves against being overthrown, before thoughts of protests have started in opposition movements?

We need to be guided by the local democrats.  They have a better feel for their problems and prospects, and the timing.

If, as you say (and I agree with) George Bush was right about calling for freedom and democracy for the Arabs, why then did Mr Bush support Musharraf, the dictator in Pakistan?

Because of the need to get at Al Qaida before it could attack America again.

Thanks to all the questioners and apologies to those I could not get to in the allotted time. 

Elliott Abrams

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Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
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