A final installment, of reports and observations from the World Economic Forum, here on the Sinai Peninsula. How does the Sinai compare with Davos, the Alpine village in which the Annual Meeting is held? Oh, you know: One is low, one is high; both are beautiful. I could go on.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah: The deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, is here, and he meets with a group of journalists–many of them crabby and feisty. They tend to get that way, when an American official is in their sights. (They are infinitely more respectful with others, in my experience.)
Zoellick is as he usually is: professorial, informed, expansive. The eyebrows fly. He says that he senses that the old order is breaking down in the Middle East–he had the same kind of feeling in the last years of the Cold War. Not that the two situations are the same. He provides a nice paraphrase of Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”
He can see that the region’s political systems are “under stress.” People are changing, rapidly or slowly. The Gulf states “are trying to be little Singapores.” (Come to think of it, Singapore is a little Singapore.) Zoellick has just been in Tunisia, and they are shaking things up there, too. Everyone wants to get into the act.
Zoellick makes a point about political Islam, which I’ve heard from others as well. Many people are joining Islamist groups because they’re true believers, of course: They want darkest theocratic rule. But others have joined merely because they want to express their opposition–their opposition to the existing order. So it was with the Communists, says Zoellick: Many were true believers, natch; but others joined them because the Communists were seen as outsiders, dissenters, challengers.
Egypt, Zoellick maintains, is in a “transitional phase.” In addition to the good, the government has made some “mistakes” recently. Like what? Like “beatin’ people up,” for one thing! (That’s exactly how he says it.) And these mistakes are in conflict with the government’s own stated desires, says Zoellick: toward openness, toward liberalization.
An Arab reporter asks a common question here: Why is the U.S. so concerned about the arrest and harassment of Egyptian democrats–such as Ayman Nour–but less concerned, at least publicly, about the arrest and harassment of the Muslim Brotherhood? (Indeed, this reporter contends that the Nour matter has been “taken out of proportion.”) Zoellick dances around this somewhat, saying that the USG supports democratic means across the board.
And my answer? Oh, something like: The “Brothers” are thugs who would snuff out the freedom of all. (But there are more rational, more principled answers, I grant.)
One of Zoellick’s best moments, linguistically, comes when he’s asked about Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son. Gamal is a big deal in the ruling party: the National Democratic Party. Zoellick says that young Mubarak and his allies seem to be trying to “overhaul” the NDP. In this, they are quite unlike “what I’ll politely call the traditional NDP leaders I have met.”
I love that line: “what I will politely call the traditional NDP leaders.”
And those leaders, says Zoellick, have no interest whatsoever in change.
The DepSecState is further asked whether the U.S. is bullying Egypt. No, he says: We are speaking forthrightly to them, and encouraging them along the path they themselves have said they wish to travel. And all that American aid? “In our mutual interest,” says Zoellick. Whether that aid will be cut, in response to recent Egyptian “mistakes,” is up to Congress. And Egyptians will have to talk to Congress. But, as far as the administration is concerned, the aid is beneficial to both giver and recipient.
Zoellick says that we must not overlook the changes that have already occurred in Egypt. Five years ago, citizens would not have demonstrated–it was too dangerous. It’s still dangerous–but not as much.
And look at the changes that have taken place in Kuwait and Bahrain! Who would have predicted those?
Zoellick has little patience for those who contend that democracy is not for the Middle East. He recalls being a teacher in Hong Kong, in 1980. He talked to his Chinese students about democracy, and they said, “Oh, that’s not for us–not for Asians. They have democracy in Japan, in some odd form, but that’s an exception.” And what has occurred in that neck of the woods? There is democracy in Taiwan and South Korea. And, to an extent, democracy in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines.
“I don’t believe anyone is immune to democracy,” says Zoellick.
He says again that ruling parties in the Middle East must “create space for legitimate opposition,” so that people can express themselves–disagree with the government–without linking arms with the Islamists.
Finally, a word about Darfur: Yes, the U.N. should go in. And “quickly.” He says it again, as though mindful of carnage and other evil: “Quickly.”
Zoellick is an impressive character, and he talks well about the world, and about U.S. policy. The administration should send him out more–to the Sunday talk shows, to the Council on Foreign Relations, etc. He should be a major spokesman.
Then again, I think of a song lyric: “Why should they take advice from you, even if you have read Balzac and Shakespeare and all them other highfalutin Greeks?”
‐Out in the Sinai desert, as you pass Bedouins and their camels, you can imagine you’re Moses, receiving the Ten Commandments. Or Arik Sharon, chewing up the Egyptian army, back in ’73. Whichever.
And aren’t you nice to have joined me for these adventures!