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MidEast Democracy: Israel’s Diamond in the Rough

“The toppling of Egypt’s modern-day pharaoh through peaceful mass protests, aided by Facebook and Twitter, marks a watershed for Egypt and the entire Arab world,” wrote Larry Diamond, in a noteworthy February 14 op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Contrary to widespread anxieties in the U.S. foreign policy establishment,” the prominent advocate of American taxpayer-funded democracy promotion” maintained, “it will also serve the long-term interests of the United States—and Israel.”

Diamond, a founding co-editor of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy, was pleased with initial developments in post-Mubarak Egypt. “Think of what could have happened,” he pointed out. “Many observers (including myself) worried that the growing alienation of young Egyptians might flow in anti-American, anti-Israeli and radical Islamist directions…. So far, none of these have happened.”

Having once co-edited a book on the threat to Israel’s democracy with an Israeli counter-terrorism specialist, Diamond was not surprisinglyreassured” by the dearth of anti-Israeli sentiment in Tahrir Square. “Few protesters are calling for abrogation of Egypt’s peace with Israel,” he noted. “Most protesters … know their aspirations for human dignity and economic opportunity can only be met with far-reaching internal reforms, and that the worn-out theme of anti-Zionism is a divergence from that. Israel and its friends should thus welcome democratic change in Egypt.”

The director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, which includes a program on Arab Reform and Democracy, scarcely expected it would turn out otherwise, though. After all, he had long been advocating such an Israel-friendly democracy for the region. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California on May 7, 2008, he criticized the Bush administration for having “walked away” from its post-9/11 “forward strategy for freedom” in the Middle East after Islamist parties such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood saw varying degrees of electoral success. Instead, he called for a new policy of gradual democratization which would allow time for a “moderate” party to emerge as “a third alternative” to the region’s “bifurcated playing field” of autocrats versus Islamists. According to Diamond, the democrats he had met in Cairo the previous month told him: “We are only asking for a gradual opening to democracy. We’re not even asking for democracy tomorrow. We don’t even want democracy tomorrow. Because we need time.” Presumably, three years has given NED sufficient time to quietly nurture an acceptable Egyptian democracy.

The well-organized protests hardly came as a surprise either. At the State Department-sponsored Alliance of Youth Movement’s inaugural 2008 summit in New York, which brought together experts in social media with digital activists from around the world, Diamond moderated a panel discussion entitled “How to Begin: Taking it to the Streets.” Just over two years later, when Egyptians did take to the streets, they were organized and directed by the April 6 Youth Movement, which had been well represented at the New York summit.

In a reminder of what a small world democracy promotion is, Diamond was introduced by AYM co-founder Jared Cohen, the then State Department official charged with counter-radicalization in the Middle East, who described his Stanford mentor as “one of the people that’s had the most profound impact on my life.” Interestingly, Diamond is not the only prominent NED figure to have influenced the precocious Cohen, who travelled extensively throughout the Middle East to meet with pro-democracy activists prior to the “Arab Spring,” making sure they had access to “connection technologies.” Referring to one-time NED director Frank Carlucci, Cohen told the New Yorker: “Secretary Carlucci has been a wonderful mentor to me.” Like the former deputy director of the CIA, who had an uncanny knack for popping up in countries where coups were taking place, Cohen just happened to be in Egypt during the street protests that toppled Mubarak.

But if peaceful protests fail to achieve the desired regime change, Diamond is not averse to the use of force—or hyperbole—to bring democracy to the Arab world. In a March 15 op-ed in the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic (which unreservedly endorses the Arab revolution), he invoked the Holocaust in an attempt to shame Obama into aiding Libya’s “freedom fighters.”

The tireless advocate of Arab democracy somehow also finds time for the Iranians. He’s on the advisory council of the Iran Strategy Task Force—a joint initiative of Freedom House and the Progressive Policy Institute, a hawkish pro-Israel “think tank”—which is aimed at shifting America’s Iran policy toward “a more aggressive focus on democracy.” And he also coordinates the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, whose goal is “to map out possible trajectories for transitions to democracy and free markets in the Middle East, beginning with Iran.”

While many find it hard to believe that the United States could be induced to facilitate regime change in a country ruled by a supposedly pliant dictator like Mubarak, there may be far greater surprises in store. In his October 2, 2010 New York Times column entitled “Third Party Rising,” Thomas Friedman favourably cited Diamond’s suspect, albeit justified, repudiation of both Democrats and Republicans: “We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country.”

With Americans increasingly frustrated with their own country’s “democratic gap,” could Uncle NED be about to bring home its regime change formula in order to co-opt the revolutionary spirit there too?

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About the Author

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Maidhc Ó Cathail writes extensively on U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. He also edits The Passionate Attachment blog (http://thepassionateattachment.com/).