Michael Gerson: Arabs' Urge for Self-Government Shouldn't be a Surprise





[Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a columnist for the WaPo.]

In June 2005, along with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I met nine Egyptian opposition figures, including presidential candidate Ayman Nour, in a shabby Cairo conference room. Rice was in Egypt to deliver a speech calling on President Hosni Mubarak to allow free elections. We hoped and half-believed the door to reform was open. Nour, with more direct experience, said it would remain a "revolving door" under Mubarak's rule. One participant explained to me that the security agent shadowing him was waiting downstairs, more concerned with intimidation than with secrecy. The leaders in the room were isolated, harassed, beleaguered and not particularly impressive....

The lesson from these events is that America should be anticipating democratic traditions long before a crisis makes them urgent - trying to encourage the leadership and institutions that will make eventual change less traumatic. These efforts in Egypt were halfhearted and inconsistent. Someday, absent a shift in policy, we are likely to say the same of China. In the modern world, it is a short distance from Tahrir Square to Tiananmen. An active democracy promotion strategy - engaging authoritarian regimes while cultivating the leaders and parties that may replace them - is alternately criticized as paternalistic, unrealistic and hypocritical. Until a moment such as this, when it is revealed as the essential, practical work of American diplomacy....

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