Last month, North Korea claimed preposterously to have discovered a “unicorn lair” in an ancient burial site. This month, there are deadly-serious reports of a successful missile launch. And so the world lurches again from laughing at North Korea’s curious totalitarian theme park and wacky dictator, to wondering with concern whether this leader, like the capricious child with superhuman powers in the science-fiction story “It’s a Good Life,” will destroy the world.
During our recent trip to Burma, most of the prodemocracy and human rights activists with whom we met expressed their appreciation for the role that sanctions by the United States and other democratic powers had played in bringing about the modest but potentially significant reforms we are now seeing in the country. They acknowledged that while trade restrictions may have made life harder for ordinary people, particularly those working in the garment and manufacturing sectors, the leverage gained as a result of the sanctions was absolutely vital in catalyzing political will among military leaders to initiate reforms.
The past week’s developments in Egypt have been dispiriting to anyone who thought Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year represented a true revolution. It is now clear that, though unplanned, Mubarak’s downfall presented a golden opportunity for Egypt’s generals to stage a soft military coup, easing him out of power and preventing a handover to his son and heir-apparent Gamal, a businessman with no military experience whom the generals were unwilling to accept. Since then, the world’s focus has been on Egypt’s continuous political turmoil: demonstrations by revolutionary forces in Tahrir Square, parliamentary and presidential elections, the struggle for power between Islamist movements and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and now reports of Mubarak’s incapacitation or death. But the real story is the relentless campaign by Egypt’s “deep state”—its generals and their military-industrial complex, state security organizations, and elements of the former ruling party, with their well-established patronage networks and allied business interests—to stage a counterrevolution.
In a speech to America’s diplomats at the State Department on May 19, 2011, President Obama declared the United States’ commitment to pursue policies that promote and protect human rights around the world. These rights, he argued, include “free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.”
A year has passed since that much-lauded speech gave voice to a commitment that human rights advocates had long been pushing for. In that time, the president and his foreign affairs team have struggled with the difficult task of channeling the rhetoric, which rightfully places human rights and democratic governance at the top of America’s priority list, into meaningful policies.
On November 4, to mark the release of this year’s edition of Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House and the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on the prospects for successful democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which were among six MENA countries examined in the new Crossroads report.
At an October 22 briefing designed to tout the enhanced relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan ahead of the first visit to the Central Asian country by a U.S. secretary of state in seven years, a senior State Department official was asked whether this strategic partner was still boiling people alive. The fact that this question needed to be asked is a worrisome sign for U.S. moral authority.