By Stephen Gowans
Led by the United States, Western countries spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on what they called democracy promotion. This usually involves promoting pro-private property, pro-free trade, and pro-foreign investment forces in foreign countries where these principles are not firmly implanted. Generous funding is showered upon media, human rights groups, and election monitors that oppose governments whose attachment is less than absolute to the three major freedoms of capitalist ideology (the 3Fs)– free-trade, free-enterprise, and free-markets. Pro-3F political parties, like the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, and in previous years, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, are provided with training, expert advice, strategic consulting and campaign funds to help them win elections (1). Experts on how to destabilize governments through civil disobedience are dispatched to train nonviolent pro-democracy activists to topple governments that have come to power in elections the West’s preferred 3F candidates have failed to win.
Democracy promotion is not the sole purview of the executive branches of Western governments. Parliaments and the US Congress are involved, as well as Western political parties, organized labor, business lobby organizations, foundations, think tanks and billionaire speculator, George Soros.
Most often, democracy promoters set their sights on countries that hold regular multi-party elections but elect people who fail to genuflect deeply enough to US domination, private property and free markets. Democracy does not, of course, mean private property, free trade and unfettered foreign investment, but in order to marshal public opinion for interventions abroad, democracy promoters implicitly equate capitalism, or anything that favors the unrestricted accumulation of profits by Western banks and corporations, with democracy. US officials often talk of democracy and free markets in the same breath, as if they’re more or less equal. This is far from true. Democracy in the close-to-the-original sense of rule by those who have no private ownership rights to productive property, is deeply inimical to the idea of an economic system that vests productive property in private hands. Even so, democracy promoters insist on treating capitalism and democracy as essentially equal, or if not equal, then complementary.
This explains why democracy promoters are often absent from countries that promote Western capitalist interests, but are not democratic. Saudi Arabia, an absolutist state ruled by a single family, is a good example. There is nothing democratic about Saudi Arabia. There are few civil liberties. Women are oppressed. There are no elections. And power rests in the hands of a tiny hereditary elite. Yet the oil-rich kingdom, whose petro-dollars are recycled through New York investment banks, is not on the democracy promoters’ radar screen.
Egypt is another example of an authoritarian country that is pretty much left alone by democracy promoters. Under the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, some political parties are banned, bloggers have been detained by the police for criticizing the government (2), and the president has only ever run in a contested election once. Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s opponent, was detained before the election, and while he was eventually allowed to campaign, was quickly re-arrested after the election.
Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who “has never taken a bus, never stopped at a red light, never met anyone who wasn’t cleared by security services,” (3) is expected to step into the presidency when his father retires. Gamal is said to have the business class behind him. His father has the United States behind him. Under pere Mubarak, Egypt’s socialist-oriented reforms of the 1960s have been dismantled, and Egypt acts as one of Washington’s cops on the Middle Eastern beat. To fulfill that role, Washington has pumped almost $8 billion in aid into Egypt’s military over the last five years. (4)
If Mubarak is a virtual dictator who locks up critics, jails opponents, and bans political parties, why does US president Barack Obama call him a force for “good” and deny charges that Mubarak is “an authoritarian leader”? (5) Washington maintains sanctions on Zimbabwe because it says the country’s president, Robert Mugabe — who regularly runs in contested elections, hasn’t banned political parties, and hasn’t arranged a hereditary succession — is authoritarian, anti-democratic and has clung to power too long (he has been in power only one year longer than Mubarak.) Yet Mubarak, the anti-socialist, pro-imperialist point man for Washington, is praised by Obama and propped up with military aid, while Mugabe, the land reforming, anti-imperialist, is targeted for regime change.
Or how about the recently deceased Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon for 41 years? While Western newspapers and politicians compete to see who can unleash the most vitriolic denunciation of Robert Mugabe for his 29 years in office, Bongo escaped their disapproving notice. And yet here was a man the democracy promoters would surely despise. He won overwhelming majorities in elections routinely denounced as fraudulent, was criticized for a poor human rights record that included limits on freedom of speech, torture and arbitrary arrest, and used his office to become immensely wealthy. Bongo lived extravagantly in a $500 million presidential palace while collecting sumptuous properties in and around Paris. And yet despite Bongo’s kleptocracy and disdain for democracy, he was “France’s point man in the region” and was long viewed as France’s “special partner.” Significantly, “France maintains a military base in the capital, Libreville, (and) has extensive oil interests in the country”, (6) which explains why Bongo was known as a “special partner” and “point man”, rather than a “thug,” “thief” and “dictator.” It also explains why the ultimate democracy promotion organization, the US Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy, has dozens of programs in Zimbabwe to get rid of Mugabe and his Zimbabwe-first policies, but not one in Gabon to get rid of Bongo and his Western oil interests-first policies.
For a brief period, the Bush administration pushed Egypt to hold elections. Bush had announced his Freedom Agenda, a plan to promote democracy throughout the Middle East. As part of the agenda, elections were also to be held for the Palestinian Legislative Council. Democracy promotion funding pored into Egypt from Washington and “Mubarak initially responded by allowing an unprecedented degree of political freedom.” But when members of the Muslim Brotherhood (the same organization that produced Hamas) “did well at the polls, Egypt’s security apparatus cracked down. The Bush administration, concerned about pushing a key ally too far, responded meekly. And that, arguably, marked the inglorious end of the Freedom Agenda.” (7) The election of Hamas in January 2006 was no less an inglorious occasion for the Bush scheme. So ill-conceived was allowing electoral democracy to flourish in the Middle East, that Pentagon officials wondered “who the fuck recommended this?” (8)
The response to Hamas’s election was to immediately freeze the new government’s funding. If Palestinians refused to elect the right people, their vote would be negated. Hamas wouldn’t be allowed to govern. In Egypt, the White House eliminated American funding for democracy promotion and announced that neither military nor civilian funding would be conditional on democratic reforms. (9) The Obama administration has followed suit, paring back the funding Mubarak’s political opponents would have used to challenge Washington’s “point man” in Egypt. (10)
With the Bush administration’s brief dalliance with promoting democracy in the Middle East having gone terribly awry, Washington – with Obama now at the helm — has learned its lesson. And so democracy promotion returns to its accustomed paradigm. As always, fifth columns continue to be funded under the guise of promoting democracy, the goal to install new point men for Western economic elites where reliable ones don’t already exist. Elsewhere, the autocrats who are already point men are once again left in peace, untroubled by elections, democracy and freedom agendas.
1. Stephen Gowans, “US Government Report Undermines Zimbabwe Opposition’s Claim of Independence,” What’s Left, October 4, 2008, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/us-government-report-undermines-zimbabwe-opposition%e2%80%99s-claim-of-independence/
2. Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, a blogger tries to spread ‘culture of disobedience’ among youths,” The Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2009.
3. Patrick Martin, “Who will be Mubarak’s heir?” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 23, 2009.
4. Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney, “Don’t give up on Egypt,” Foreignpolicy.com, June 2009.
5. Michael Slackman, “Arab states cool to Obama pleas for peace gesture,” The New York Times, June 3, 2009.
6. Adam Mossiter, “Omar Bongo, Gabon Leader, Dies at 73,” The New York Times, June 9, 2009.
7. James Traub, “Obama realism may not play well in Cairo streets,” The New York Times, May 31, 2009.
8. “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008.
9. James Traub, “Obama realism may not play well in Cairo streets, The New York Times, May 31, 2009.
10. Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney, “Don’t give up on Egypt,” Foreignpolicy.com, June 2009.