The democracy agenda can take a back seat, now
US President Donald Trump’s very, very warm welcome of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House and the effusive praise heaped on the Egyptian leader illustrated not just how much has changed in US attitudes towards Egypt but towards the entire Middle East.
Trump is eager to turn the page on the Barack Obama era. He sees previous policies as having failed and prejudicial to the interests of the United States.
Some strategic objectives that were pursued by Washington have taken a back seat. This is particularly true for the democracy and human rights agenda of the Obama and even the Bush administrations. It is all about “America First” and economic nationalism now. So, Sisi can smile and enjoy the ride.
It is not just Washington. In monitoring the moves of Western governments, one has the impression that more than six years have elapsed since the “Arab spring”. We are a long way from the euphoria over the new dawn of democracy breaking in the Middle East.
Much of the demise of idealism-driven intervention has to do with voters shaping the agenda of populists and mainstream governments. The immediate concerns of governments are ensuring economic growth and employment at home and shielding countries from terrorism threats, whatever the cost.
In navigating this route, the Trump administration is not facing any headwind. The West altogether has been very much disillusioned about the “Arab spring”, which failed to deliver on security and peace, much less on democracy, with the relative exception of Tunisia.
The Trump administration, hence, did not find it difficult to break with the main Western narrative of the previous six years. It is doing so unapologetically, especially that it has played no role in shaping or upholding that narrative.
Like many European governments, it is aware that voters are more likely to be driven by fear of migrants swarming over their shores and terrorists striking at their way of life.
Well-meaning liberals have been or are being swept away by wariness about the violence and tragedies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Democratic idealism is not a driver of alliances anymore.
The idea is that “there is no sense in weakening essential alliances for an abstract principle if doing so jeopardises stability and weakens the wider cause of liberty”, wrote the Times of London.
In Trump’s United States or in Europe’s electoral campaigns, there is muted tolerance for Islamists taking part in the political life of a few Arab countries but there is virtually no Western capital calling on Arab governments to steer away from the exclusion of Islamists in the democratic game. Many voices are, in fact, calling for an outright ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, the standard bearer of Middle Eastern Islamism.
The pendulum has swung. There are stark dichotomies today. “If the choice is between Islamist extremism and a repressive but non-expansionist autocracy, the West must work with the latter,” pointed out the Times.
The United States and increasingly many of its Western allies are tired of the region’s wars and woes. They are willing to outsource the armed conflicts to regional governments, local alliances, the Kurds and even Russia. To anybody, in fact.
The overriding imperative is not to be entangled in Middle Eastern problems that they cannot understand and that, in any case, they do not see as justifying the possible loss of Western lives.
Clinching markets that provide economic prosperity and jobs will be utmost in Western leaders’ minds as they draft their diplomatic strategies.
Some of the rhetoric about defending democracy and human rights might linger in relations between the West and MENA but not to the point of being the driving factor, even if that is to the chagrin of rights advocates.
The lack of interest in human rights and democracy in Egypt and elsewhere will inevitably raise doubts and trigger criticism regarding the consistency of US and Western commitments to such issues. Accusations of opportunism will fly but the proponents of economic nationalism and security at home are willing to accept that kind of collateral damage.
There is a new game in town. Its repercussions will be felt for years to come.