The Bush Administration’s Democracy Promotion Efforts in Egypt — Edmund LaCour


Towards the end of his first term, President George W. Bush declared that democracy promotion in the Middle East would become a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. The administration aimed to encourage democratic change throughout the region, even in countries with authoritarian regimes traditionally friendly to American interests. For example, Egypt has been one of Washington’s closest regional allies for decades, and yet the Bush administration pushed successfully for democratic reforms in the country. However, when the regime in Egypt began rolling back the imposed reforms, the Bush administration could muster only a limited response due to conflicting foreign policy interests, a lack of expertise regarding Islamist political movements, and resistance to the democracy project from officials within the administration. As a result, authoritarianism remains entrenched in Egypt, and the credibility of American democracy promotion efforts, as well as Washington’s overall reputation, has been further diminished in Egypt and beyond.

President George W. Bush stated clearly that democracy promotion abroad was essential to securing peace at home. As a result, the administration attempted to integrate democracy promotion in Egypt and the broader Middle East into its regional strategy. The White House instituted new initiatives within the State Department, garnered international consensus, and increased funding for all government bodies engaged in democracy promotion, the National Endowment for Democracy in particular. The administration also made an unprecedented diplomatic push in public and private statements supporting democratic development in Egypt and among its neighbors. Nevertheless, the government’s approach to democracy promotion lacked a centralized “command and control center” and thus had little strategic coherence. Additionally, the role of democracy promotion in the GWOT was never explicitly articulated. Furthermore, many in the U.S. government (such as the Office of the Vice President but even elements of the State Department) never bought into the strategy, particularly as it related to Arab allies, such as Egypt. As such, no unified strategy was adequately pursued.

In refining its Middle East strategy during the second term, the Bush administration identified development aid and democracy promotion as essential tools for achieving U.S. national security objectives, particularly as they pertained to the GWOT. As a result, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, began focusing more energy on U.S. democracy promotion efforts from 2003-2006. However, since 2006, high-level U.S. support for change has been notably absent as other foreign policy goals in the region have trumped democracy promotion. Additionally, Washington’s extensive economic and military aid to Egypt over the last 30 years is not well leveraged to press for democratic reform. Indeed, by continuing to provide aid to Egypt despite President Mubarak’s repeated authoritarian crackdowns, the United States has fostered skepticism abroad regarding its commitment to democracy. These conflicted actions have led to the resignation of several frustrated staffers who supported democracy promotion efforts.

The lack of unified purpose and the absence of a coherent strategic plan regarding how best to encourage a democratic transition in Egypt while pursuing broader U.S. goals in the region has rendered democracy promotion efforts halting and haphazard. This lack of unity was partially the result of purposeful resistance of administration officials who doubted the wisdom of the democracy project and resisted the effort. The available sources do not indicate how some individuals were able to contravene the President’s direction, but make it clear that Bush lacked the capacity (organizational tools and personal time) to oversee the proper implementation of his directives. These individuals and organizations were suspect of transformational diplomacy, and preferred realist, status quo driven policy or simply desired to keep working in their traditional areas of expertise (for example, development). The bureaucratic resistance hindered Bush’s freedom agenda and compelled the departure of frustrated staffers tasked with democratization. Furthermore, consensus was never reached regarding whether democracy promotion was a tactic in fighting the GWOT or a grand strategy and policy end in itself.

It is widely recognized that the attention lavished by the Bush administration upon the cause of Egyptian democracy between 2003 and 2005 helped create space for democratic political opposition in Egypt and encouraged President Mubarak to adopt at least mild reforms. On-the-ground efforts of U.S.-sponsored nongovernmental organizations helped make possible Egypt’s reasonably free and fair parliamentary elections in 2005. Since then, however, Mubarak has cracked down on opposition parties and civil society groups with little response from the United States, damaging the credibility, and thus the effectiveness, of the U.S. democracy promotion agenda throughout the Middle East.

While Bush called for reform throughout the Middle East and funds were assigned to serve that purpose across the region, Egypt is one of the few countries where the U.S. had, at least for a time, a positive impact on democratic reform. However, success was short lived and many experts who have recently analyzed President Bush’s so-called “freedom agenda” in the broader Middle East and North Africa have declared the effort largely ineffective due to competing interests and lack of commitment. These individuals point out that if the U.S. hopes to encourage democracy among its autocratic allies, Washington will have to learn how to pursue this aim in tandem with other priorities.