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Magazine / Foreign Policy

On Their Side

A late convert to the freedom agenda, President Obama has enlisted a democracy crew to help shape Egypt’s future.

Jubilant: Egyptians celebrate Hosni Mubarak’s departure.(PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Michael Hirsh
February 17, 2011

Well before he became president, as he thrust him­self into the nat­ional con­scious­ness, Barack Obama would often hark back to his boyhood in Indonesia.

In his speeches, Obama would make fun of other senators (read: John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton) who embarked on the typical overseas “fact-finding missions,” usually traveling around by helicopter. Those trips don’t tell you much, then-candidate Obama would say. Instead, one had to understand the “child looking up at the helicopter” who “must see America and feel hope.” He had been such a child, Obama said, after he and his American mother moved to Indonesia in 1967 when he was 6.

Obama would recount to aides such as Ben Rhodes, then a key speechwriter and now deputy national security adviser, how Indonesians’ lives were prey to the arbitrary whims of the military—in which his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, had served as an officer. In Obama’s view, the key to making democracy stick, Rhodes concluded, “was not just elections but the rule of law. The building of institutions.” Indonesia’s modern history, Rhodes said then, was a constant “touchstone” for Obama.


Now, the president is invoking his Indonesia experience once again—as his preferred model for Egypt after Hosni Mubarak. Ever since the early days of the Egyptian crisis, when Obama “crashed” a high-level January 28 meeting in the White House chaired by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to insist that his administration support the protesters, “the president believed that the most analogous situation was Indonesia,” a senior administration official said. Obama has convened a kind of democracy crew within the White House—an impressive group of scholars who are trying to assist the transition in Egypt and other nations that might come along in a part of the world that has remained stubbornly resistant to the “freedom agenda” until now.

In Indonesia, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, a 1998 upheaval overturned a 30-year autocracy led by President Suharto, and elections followed. The military deferred to the civilians, and in the world’s largest Muslim country Islamist politicians were eventually marginalized (winning at most 7 percent of the vote). Obama, according to top aides, believes that Egypt must similarly make the correct choices on establishing an electoral system to avoid the pitfalls that send so many other new democracies back into chaos, tyranny, or civil war.

This week, Obama planned to call Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army general, to ask him to offer advice to the Egyptian military on the democratic transition, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told National Journal.

This all puts Obama in a strange place. Much as President George W. Bush once shunned “nation-building,” only to find himself thrust into that task in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11, the 44th president had mostly avoided democracy-promotion in his first two years in office. It was, after all, a policy that left a bad taste in much of the world, largely because of the Iraq war. But now, as the Middle East continues to erupt—with growing protests in Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, and other countries—Egyptian democracy is barely off the ground and may already be heading in a direction that is not necessarily in accord with U.S. interests. Obama does not have the option of looking away.

This week, the Egyptian junta, the Supreme Military Council, appointed a panel of jurists that included an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood and announced that elections will take place in six months—far too soon, some experts say, for an outcome that will fairly represent the broad array of political opinion that manifested itself during the protests. As a result, the Obama team knows that the next few months will be at least as critical as the few weeks that just passed—perhaps more so.


Ever since Mubarak resigned on February 11, the administration hasn’t said a great deal in public. After being drawn—somewhat reluctantly—into the center of the Egyptian crisis in recent weeks, the administration is now trying to revert to a very low profile to avoid accusations of interference.

But in truth, the United States is more deeply involved than ever. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in Egypt,” Obama told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday. “Egypt is going to require help in building democratic institutions.” At the White House, the working group on democratic transition is overseen by Michael McFaul, a senior director of the National Security Council and a former Stanford scholar who has long studied democratic transitions. He is working with other political scientists in the administration, such as Jeremy Weinstein, the NSC’s director for democracy, and Matthew Spence, Donilon’s executive secretary, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford and has written about U.S. assistance to democratic transitions. Also heavily involved are the NSC’s Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Samantha Power. 

Building on a “presidential study directive” that Obama signed last August to launch a broad look at reform in the Middle East, the administration is also consulting several prominent democracy scholars from outside government. They include Iraq expert Larry Diamond of Stanford; Karen Brooks, an Indonesia and Southeast Asia scholar who served in the Clinton and Bush administrations; Don Horowitz from Duke; John Carey from Dartmouth; and Val Bunce from Cornell.

Together, these academics and officials are poring over a whole range of historical precedents for successful transition, including Indonesia in the late ’90s; the liberation of the former Soviet bloc nations in the late stages of the Cold War; the emergence of democratic Turkey; the antiapartheid campaign in South Africa; the “People Power” toppling of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; and the ouster of South Korea’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. They are also examining the transitions from military rule in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile in the ’80s and ’90s.

History presents just as many cautionary tales, however, stretching all the way back to the Bolshevik takeover of Russia’s weak democracy after the 1917 revolution against the czar. The “real danger,” McFaul tells National Journal, is that a “sudden collapse of the ancient regime” creates opportunities for exploitation. Many other so-called revolutions, such as the 1952 ouster of Egypt’s King Farouk or the Iranian uprising that toppled the shah in 1979, also began as hopeful events, only to get hijacked by unanticipated forces, whether Islamist or military.

“There are some differences here that make me more optimistic,” McFaul says. “The institutions of the state have not totally collapsed in Egypt. And what you do have is a broad-based mobilization for democracy that is not just one or two groups, and there’s a pretty good rapport between them.” The group that people most worry about, the Muslim Brotherhood, has displayed a cautious deliberative approach and a willingness to be part of the new government. “Lenin or Khomeini never said that,” a U.S. official says.

Others are more skeptical. Egypt is “a terrific accident waiting to happen,” says Stanford’s Diamond. The army has been installing autocrats for 60 years, after all, and it is now indisputably in charge. For all their sophistication in the use of social media, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped inspire the demonstrations, and other protest leaders betray a certain political naïveté that the Egyptian military may already be exploiting.

“It’s a very top-down process,” Diamond says. “The military appears to be doing extremely little consultation with Egyptian society. They’re just going out declaring things. An election in six months: Who could dispute that? Except for the minor detail that there is no chance—zero—that Egypt can be ready to hold parliamentary elections in six months.”

The risk is that Egypt is so denuded of political organization after 60 years that only a handful of already organized entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling National Democratic Party, would be able to compete if elections take place too soon. And if those elections then determine the provisions of the new constitution, it could set Egypt on a nondemocratic course for decades.

“There is a genuine danger that the people who really motivated and organized this whole thing, when it comes down to political negotiation, could find themselves on the outside in the next few weeks,” says Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute, the Reagan-era government-funded foundation that will be among the groups helping on the ground in Egypt. “I think they need to be given the tools.… There is a danger the ruling party may be reformed only slightly, and they sort of take over.”

Diamond believes that unless dramatic changes are made in Egypt’s current electoral law, early elections could end up like the Palestinian ones next door, when Hamas won total dominance with just 42 percent of the vote in the 2006 election. Its rival, the Fatah group that makes up the Palestinian Authority, had thought it successfully rigged the vote for itself, but it miscalculated. Or Egypt could go the way of Angola, where the peace agreement and electoral reforms that ended a civil war in the early ’90s were so poorly designed that they cast the country into another civil war. A misguided transition could suddenly turn what has been a corner of stability in the Mideast—and the cornerstone of peace, the Israel-Egypt treaty—into yet a new front for chaos.

Indonesia, by contrast, “is a living, breathing example of a large Muslim country that went through a democratic transition” successfully, says Brooks, who in late January gave the National Security Council staff what was described as a powerful presentation on the similarities between the two countries.

Asked to describe her briefing, Brooks said she noted that both Indonesia and Egypt are huge nations: Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, with 240 million people; Egypt is the most populous Arab Muslim nation with 80 million. Both are ancient cultures and are longtime U.S. allies whose regimes Washington supported “arguably at the expense of democracy and human rights,” engendering “frustration with perceived U.S. hypocrisy.”

Both countries lived with “the specter of Islamicization.” But both had powerful secular armies that played a critical role in peacefully removing the dictators. “Indonesia, like Egypt, had an underground network of Islamist activists, mostly based in university settings, but also in the mosques,” Brooks says. Yet the Islamist party in Indonesia has topped out its vote at about 7.5 percent, and “people say they’re just another political actor.” Similarly the former Indonesian ruling party, Golkar—which resembles Egypt’s NDP—has become just another player.


Firmly, but without making too many headlines, the U.S. goal is to prod Egypt in Indonesia’s direction. Without going into detail, McFaul says, “We’re going to be in interactions with our counterparts in Egypt.” Part of the administration’s plan will be to delegate nongovernmental, but federally supported, groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Democratic Institute to give advice and monitor the rule-making and elections.

“The interim rules are key,” McFaul says. “They have to be agreed upon between the government and society. And then there are some very key, very classic questions about the sequence. Do you have elections first and then rewrite the constitution? Do you have simultaneous elections for president and parliament? And then, third … do you rewrite the electoral law for parliament?”

Diamond and other experts say that Egypt has no choice but to rewrite the rules: Under the current system, voting will likely hand control to any party that wins only a plurality of votes, as happened in Palestine. “It favors big parties and actors who can crowd out the others. If that electoral system is retained, it will advantage the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood,” Diamond says. Beyond that, “the top layers of the Egyptian military are deeply corrupt. They don’t want to be scrutinized. Their goal is to maintain stability.”

And so, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are now getting a second hack at an issue their critics say they neglected in their first two years: support for democracy. Even critics in their own party say they failed the Green Revolution in Iran, for instance. “They were too mild,” says outgoing Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who was just appointed head of Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center. Last year, the Obama team also acceded to a coup in Honduras, finally accepting elections organized by the plotters as “free and fair,” as Clinton called them. The administration even cut democracy aid to Egypt. “They overcompensated for Bush; they kind of went too far in the other direction,” a former senior administration official.

But well before the protests erupted in Tunisia and then Egypt, the president had signaled that he was tacking back in favor of promoting freedom. He gave a pro-democracy speech at the United Nations in September, and in November he did the same in Jakarta, Indonesia. By most accounts, Obama himself began driving administration policy within days of the January 25 outbreak of protests in Egypt. The president’s strong feelings about making a statement informed the “tweet heard round the world,” from Crowley: “The Egyptian government can’t reshuffle the deck and then stand pat.”

On the day after Obama crashed the January 28 “principals” meeting, Donilon held another high-level session to talk about how to handle the crisis. It was then that the administration began to look at popular uprisings in the Philippines, Korea, and particularly at what happened in the transition from military to civilian rule in Indonesia in the late ’90s, the official said. The democracy-transition team called Brooks, arranging a meeting at the Caribou Coffee shop kitty-cornered from the White House and inquiring, “Everybody looks at this as Iran, but we wonder if Indonesia isn’t as good or better? What do you think?” as Brooks recalls it.

The president, meanwhile, wanted “as robust an outreach across the government as possible, up and down the ranks of the State Department and military,” a senior administration official says. A key U.S. lever, this source said, was the communication from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon to the obviously beholden Egyptian military. The message: “Do not allow the bond between the Egyptian people and the military to be broken.” That was from Gates to Egyptian Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi. With Tantawi now acting as head of state, those contacts—and the implicit threat that the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid could be jeopardized—are expected to continue.

Obama now finds himself playing an uncertain shepherd to a slew of democracy movements that he had very little to do with. Indeed, the irony for U.S. officials is that while Bush sought to impose democracy at the pointy end of a trillion-dollar war and devoted many speeches to it, including his second inaugural address, he achieved very little progress toward that goal during his eight years in office. The places where Bush openly supported democracy—such as Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories—have grown only more troubled.

By contrast, Obama had openly supported the Arab autocrats, and yet the Arab and Iranian democracy movements have taken off on his watch.

But that is often the case with presidents—they rarely make the history they choose. It’s often forced upon them, and they simply try to ride herd on events as best they can. Even Ronald Reagan, revered today in Republican circles as the freedom president, initially supported Marcos in the Philippines. And George W. Bush tended toward “realism” before 9/11.

So, perhaps in ways he never imagined, Obama will prove a transformational president—a democracy president—after all.

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