THE HILL 02/02/11
By Michael Shank
The protests in Egypt must be understood within the prism of past policy in Washington, specifically President George W. Bush’s policy. While U.S. policies in the Middle East have never been dependable, let alone consistent, many conservatives in Washington this week, including former Bush appointees Elliott Abrams and Michael Gerson, are hailing Bush-era efforts to bring democracy and freedom to Egypt. Yet, one of the biggest blots on U.S. attempts to bring democracy and freedom in Egypt occurred under Bush.
The Bush administration called it the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a misnomer for a policy that did little to foster real partnership, substantially more to alienate. More accurately, Bush’s reform-minded efforts would have been titled the “Middle East Pan-Islamic Initiative.” That is exactly what MEPI, bolstered by a heavy dose of foreign aid, was doing: Fostering a pan-Islamic movement throughout the Middle East.
MEPI long understood, and rightly so, that, “People in the broader Middle East seek greater freedom and opportunity, and a growing community of reformers in the region has emerged with new energy and ideas to make these aspirations a reality.”
Nothing could be closer to the truth. Reform efforts were undeniably mushrooming and new energy was bursting at the seams. It was called pan-Islamicism.
Having long ago spoiled the idea of successful secular Arab nationalism, U.S.-backed governments in the Middle East were often perceived as puppet regimes for the West, forcing disillusioned populaces to rally under an alternate political umbrella, often a religious one.
For many, it was the only political framework left with any remnants of integrity. Iran’s religious revolution in the late 1970s was a perfect example of this trend and a similar ideological shift was starting in Egypt. Egyptians were deeply distrustful of President Mubarak’s pandering to Western donors. Despite U.S. funding to Egypt, an impressive $1.5 billion annually (most of which was military aid, roughly $65 billion since 1975), Egyptians told America that money couldn’t buy their love.
The American response under Bush, in an attempt to justify U.S.-Egypt relations, boasted Egypt’s democracy-building as resulting from U.S. funds. MEPI’s site, for example, showcased success stories detailing Egypt’s multi-party elections, women activists, empowered youth and micro-credit opportunities.
To Egypt’s populace, however, this was a fallacy. Mubarak’s regime continued to be domestically repressive and regionally acquiescent. Public faith in the secular government was gone. What lay in the vacuum of disillusionment were political Islamic parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, in whom faith increased.
For Egyptians, and for much of the Middle East, the utility of pan-Islamicism was undoubtedly clear. In many minds, pan-Islamicism was the only ideological vehicle capable of liberating the masses and the only counterweight to ward off the Bush Administration’s grand plan for the Middle East, one that would inevitably secure further U.S. protection over oil-producing states. The surprising irony was that the Bush Administration was quite pleased with this burgeoning revolutionary pan-Islamic movement.
For Bush, pan-Islamicism could build a pretext that would legitimize statements that claimed “Islamic fascism” culpable for security threats. Saber-rattling against Islamic leaderships was common. If the Bush administration had been genuinely interested in fighting so-called Islamic fascism, they would have examined the prevailing ideological drivers of Islamic political movements, those of freedom and justice.
Freedom and justice is what drove, in 1979, an Islamic political movement in Tehran to overthrow the U.S.-sponsored Shah and to reclaim a government stolen from the people by the U.S. in the 1950s. (Freedom and justice is what now may drive an Islamic political movement in Cairo to assist in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.)
Realizing that the Middle East could not be converted to American standards, Bush was doing his best to polarize and Islamicize in order to establish the pretext for further invasions.
Populations still on the receiving end of residual leftover from the Bush agenda, therefore – who MEPI described as those who “seek greater freedom and opportunity” who are “reformers in the region” that have “emerged with new energy” – have the unsolicited task of legitimating, in the eyes of the world, Islamic political movements.
Pan-Islamicism, though birthed by legitimate grievances, will not be quickly stomached by the West. But ironically, this is the very legacy that Bush built.
Michael Shank is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.