2. August 2017 | EDP Wire | Annika Elena Poppe

Recalibrating the Interests-Values-Nexus: Recent US Democracy Promotion Policy in Egypt and the MENA

This EDP Wire provides a brief summary and highlights one specific argument of a recent contribution Annika Elena Poppe made to Orient’s second edition of 2017 (58: 2, 15-22 “Recalibrating the interest-values-nexus. US democracy promotion in the Middle East”).

The Middle East, until the Arab uprisings, had often been portrayed as an exception of democratisation. The several so-called global ‘democratic waves’ had barely touched it. Moreover, the Middle East had also been identified as an exception from the standpoint that regards typical US foreign policy to be a balancing act between ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ concerns. Globally, US interest in and support for democracy has varied for decades and from region to region, yet it quite consistently chose not to prioritise democracy in this particular region: “Nowhere has the disjuncture between American values and America’s foreign policy been as great, as consistent, for as long as in the Arab Middle East.”[1] This began to change in the early 2000s as US reluctance temporarily broke under the Bush administration. US policy behaviour was also profoundly challenged by the Arab uprisings in 2011. However, policy toward the Middle East has more recently returned to the ‘old bargain’ of accommodating authoritarian regimes in exchange for their cooperation and supposed stability. And it is also quite unlikely that President Donald Trump will turn out to be a democracy champion in the region.

In my recent article for ORIENT (II/2017, 58: 2, 15-22), I analyse US democracy promotion policy under the Bush and Obama governments in the Middle East, using Egypt, which has often been considered the linchpin of US policy in the Middle East, as the focal point. The article also speculates about what to expect from the Trump presidency regarding democracy promotion in the region in light of its predecessors’ legacy and the direction in which early signs are pointing. In this short extract from the piece in ORIENT, I would like to put recent US democracy promotion policy towards Egypt in the larger perspective of US foreign policy towards the MENA region.

In official policy declarations, all post-Cold War US presidential administrations (so far) have embraced the goal of democracy promotion as a central strategic US foreign policy imperative. The basis for this policy is the deeply-entrenched political belief that democracies make for more stable and reliable partners in security and economic cooperation and thus, as the circle of democracies expands, this not only benefits the United States but also enhances global peace and prosperity.[2] Democracy promotion lies at the core of US national identity and has long been a bipartisan and consensus-generating policy. Accordingly, the central interests that the US has (had) in Egypt and the Middle East were always declared as going hand in hand with deepening democratisation – short-term and minor trade-offs notwithstanding.[3] US rhetoric routinely emphasised that this applied to security and stability concerns, counterterrorism efforts, economic progress and creating markets for US products. Despite this much-affirmed consensus, US policy in practice has, of course, been a mix of democracy promotion and autocracy promotion; strategic cooperation with Egypt was never severely put into danger for the sake of democratisation.[4]

As a country subjected to the conservative dimension of President Bush’s Freedom Agenda – a policy that lost its label but was basically continued under the Obama government –, Egypt is a good example of US policy towards a friendly authoritarian regime. These were supposed to gradually reform, mostly through economic development first, while US interests were not to be endangered. This included an “emphasis on safeguarding the socio-economic privileges and power of the established autocratic allies”.[5] Egypt is an excellent example for showcasing two contradictory imperatives of the Freedom Agenda: the attempt to pressure autocratic regimes to reform on the one hand while requiring their cooperation and support in counterterrorism measures on the other. This tension eventually contributed to notably decreased US reform pressure, which had been temporarily and unusually high during the early Bush presidency and, hesitantly, in light of the demands raised by the protesters on the streets during what came to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

In the mild reform pressure usually exerted upon these types of countries – pressure that only becomes more forceful if pro-democracy protests within the country rise to an unignorable degree – Egypt is perhaps most similar to the case of Pakistan. Similarly, here too the US was “at pains to depict [its] policy as normatively appropriate, even when [it] clearly favoured material interests over the goal of promoting democracy”.[6] Beyond that, actual policy during the “Arab Spring” and beyond varied greatly despite the claim that US Middle East policy in general was guided by three principles: opposition to violence and repression, support for basic universal rights, and support for political and economic reforms.[7] With regard to Tunisia, after all the country in which the Arab uprisings had their origin, the US was not markedly concerned when dictator Ben Ali fled. Tunisia is not of great strategic value for the US and the protestors, despite strong Islamist currents in the country, seemed sufficiently liberal-minded and secular from the US perspective.[8] In terms of important US security interests and a valued strategic alliance, the case of Bahrain is also notable. Here, strong US criticism of political repression after the uprisings and a weapon sales embargo were muted when the Bahraini regime ignored the appeals and when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened militarily to support the regime against the uprisings.[9]

It would be short-sighted, however, to merely conclude that ‘hard’ interests have once again overruled – at least most of the time – the ‘soft’ interest in democracy promotion in the Middle East and elsewhere. An analysis of statements for the Bush and Obama governments shows that the differentiation of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ foreign policy interests with regard to democracy promotion is, in policymakers’ minds, pointless. There is a very stable tendency for policymakers to perceive democracy promotion as either a central interest or, at minimum, interest-enhancing. Democracy promotion is also considered to be a norm or a value, which also contributes to the enhancement of other broadly defined values. Among these, there is world peace – which, clearly, from the US official perspective is also in its national and in particular in its security interest.[10] Moreover, US policy towards Egypt is a good example of how the need to act according to what is considered appropriate constrains the range of available policy options. In light of the normative imperative of acting as the global champion of democracy, for neither president was ignoring democracy promotion or officially declaring it a lesser goal an option. Accordingly, noticeable returns to the ‘old bargain’ were met with widespread debate and criticism as well as constant inquiries by the press and increasingly disillusioned pro-democracy actors within Middle Eastern countries.[11] The most salient recent examples are the Bush administration’s retreat from reform pressure after 2005 and the Obama administration’s half-hearted and hesitant approach towards the Egyptian uprisings; in both cases the government was heavily criticised and struggled to fit its responses into the framework of democracy promotion.

Egypt is thus a good example of how policy is under pressure to correspond to deep-seated beliefs and expectations. Even when confronted with blatant contradictions between pursuing democratisation and other foreign policy goals, US government representatives did not flinch but instead emphasised the unity of values and interests, constantly reiterating a long-held bipartisan consensus: democracy is a universal value and the US is its champion, democracy can and should be promoted, and a host of good things will come in its wake. Discursively, the US is committed to democracy promotion. Operationally, it has much more leeway – to the extent that it can still somewhat convincingly claim to be acting according to the basic premises of democracy promotion. The need to adhere to the democracy promotion consensus clearly limits policy options, even in the case of the ‘Middle East exception’.


[1] Wittes 2008: 16.

[2] These regularly articulated assumptions by the post-Cold War US foreign policy elite have their basis in democratic peace theory. See, for example, Cox et al., American Democracy Promotion, 2000.

[3] The author has conducted several extensive analyses of statements of the US foreign policy elite under Clinton, Bush, and Obama with regard to foreign policy in general as well as with regard to Egypt in particular.

[4] Brownlee 2012: 8.

[5] Hassan 2013: 142.

[6] Wolff 2014: 259.

[7] Obama 2011.

[8] Aftandilian 2012: 6.

[9] Ibid. 16.

[10] See fn 3.

[11] The presidents, secretaries of state and other officials were regularly and increasingly confronted with and criticised for the lack of pro-democracy policy on the ground – at press conferences, radio interviews, public forums etc.



Aftandilian, Greg 2012: United States Policy towards the Arab Spring, University of Massachusetts-Lowell Thought Paper (Lowell, MA: Middle East Center for Peace, Development, and Culture).

Brownlee, Jason, 2012: Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Cox, Michael, Ikenberry, John and Inoguchi, Takashi (editors) 2000: American Democracy Promotion – Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (New York: Oxford University Press).

Hassan, Oz 2013: Constructing America’s Freedom Agenda for the Middle East: Democracy and Domination (London, New York: Routledge).

Obama, Barack 2011: Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa, May 19, 2011, accessed February 20, 2017, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/19/remarks-president-middle-east-and-north-africa.

Wittes, Tamara C. 2008: Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy (Washington: Brookings Institution Press).

Wolff, Jonas 2014: Democracy Promotion as International Politics: comparative analysis, theoretical and practical implications, in: The Comparative International Politics of Democracy Promotion, edited by Wolff, Jonas, Spanger, Hans-Joachim, Puhle, Hans-Jürgen (London: Routledge, 2014), 253–288.

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