One democratic uprising or vote does not make a country a democracy. This important point is being overlooked in the debate about the U.S. response to the populist uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East. Pundits have filled the airwaves claiming the United States must choose between supporting “democracy” and governments that are friendly to America. This is a false choice.
Promoting and supporting freedom in the Middle East is the best way to strengthen our alliances, bring peace to the region, and increase popular support for America. True democracies in the Middle East are likely to be peaceful, law-abiding countries that will not oppress their people, threaten their neighbors, or harbor and breed terrorists. The problem is that many people throughout the world confuse a one-time democratic vote or uprising with a truly democratic political system.
While democracies in the Middle East won’t be mirror images of America or European nations, there are principles that are universal to democracies besides an initial right to vote. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free and fair elections, and the opportunity to peacefully vote out political leaders are just some of these elements. Authoritarian regimes that are swept into power by a one-time democratic vote are not democracies at all. And they don’t deserve the support of the United States just because they were “democratically elected.”
Some commentators claim that the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip shows the danger of supporting democracy in the Middle East. This is a false argument. Hamas may have been democratically elected initially, but it does not preside over a democracy. Hamas kills and tortures political dissidents, prohibits freedom of speech, and runs Gaza with an iron first. The fact that Hamas was elected does not make its regime a democracy.
Therefore, it is completely consistent for the United States to support freedom and democracy in the Middle East while opposing the government of Hamas. The same holds true for Iran. The revolution of 1979 may have been a popular, democratic revolt, but no one can claim Iran is a democracy.
So as the United States weighs its response to the crisis in Egypt, it’s important to remember that one democratic uprising or vote does not automatically make a country a democracy. The United States should and must support true freedom for the people of the Middle East. But it must do so while opposing authoritarian and threatening regimes that cloak themselves in the guise of democracy.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.