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Double Standards Brigade Goes to Egypt

UPDATE 8:45am 2/2/11: NYT: US policy is stuck one step behind popular movement for democracy

Update 5pm: Joe Biden, oops I mean Hosni Mubarak, says he will not run for re-election in Egypt

UPDATE 8:45AM: much heavier heavyweights with similar criticisms of Double Standards (see end of post)

I want to thank all the major world leaders who have worked so hard during the past few days to confirm my own personal thesis that the Development/Foreign Policy Establishment has a Double Standard on Democracy for rich and poor nations.

I never would have thought that a cringingly catchy slogan like “Democracy is for Rich People, Not for Egypt People” would have so many takers.

UN News has helpfully posted where Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stands:

Asked directly what concrete steps he thinks President Hosni Mubarak should take to show that he is listening to the voices of the people of Egypt and if he thinks the appointment of a new Government is sufficient, Mr. Ban replied: “I would leave it to the Egyptian leaders.”

This blog already gave Secretary of State Clinton grief over the weekend for using the well-known “transition” rhetorical maneuver to avoid taking any position.

At least Vice President Joe Biden took a position.  On the PBS News Hour, Jim Lehrer asked Biden:

Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?

Biden said no. Lehrer pressed further:

Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?

Biden helpfully explained:

Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.

Rich nations need to respect the rights of their citizens to avoid the “dictator” label, but in poor nations all you need is to be a US ally.

Sorry, you're too poor and too Muslim for Democracy

This is perfectly consistent with US policy in the previous administration, when (at-the-time) Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, according to a recent opinion on English Al Jazeera,

rebuffed attempts by local journalists to get him to admit to a double standard in calling for human rights without actually supporting them in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.

One has to feel sorry for Mr. Zoellick, who may someday win recognition for being stuck on the wrong side of democratic history twice. Now as World Bank President, Mr. Zoellick presides over an institution whose Egypt page on the Internet today has a helpful summary on “10 Things you may not know about the World Bank in Egypt.” This includes this affirmation of democracy in Egypt:

Through consultations processes, participation and community driven development projects, the Bank engages in active dialogue with and promotes initiative among various stakeholder groups to enhance the quality of its work and acquire a sharper focus on its mission to alleviate poverty.

OK, frankly, this post doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the Double Standards on shameful display for Egypt, for the Arab World, for the developing countries in general.

Couldn’t we find somebody to draw upon the words from our own democratic history to say something like:

let’s speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Christians and Muslims, rich and poor, will be able to join hands and say “Free at last! Free at last!”

UPDATE 8:45am  Great columns in this morning’s papers by Nick Kristof, David Brooks, and Gideon Rachman making related and far more eloquent criticisms .

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  1. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    I don’t think there is a different standard for rich and poor, but a different standard for dictators who make peace with Israel vs. dictators who do not (or who are anti-Israel).

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Jeff Barnes: that is far too specific. The difference is between friendly and hostile dictators. It is like the difference between Hitler and Stalin. Before June 22 1941 they were both totalitarian monsters. After June 22 1941 Uncle Joe was the heroic leader of the Russian peoples. Even now, the UK legally defines ‘war crimes’ in such as way that Soviet officials never committed them even when acting as allies of Nazi Germany.

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Permalink
  3. Prof. Easterly, while taking your point about hypocrisy on democracy, what is clearly bothering a lot of people is the parallel with Iran in 1979. It is hard to argue that the mullahocracy is preferable to the Shah, internationally or domestically. Lenin was not preferable to Nicholas II, Mao was not preferable to Chiang Kai-shek, etc.

    Of course, the corollary to that is that the Shah always falls. But it is hard to remember you should have been draining the swamp when the alligators are circling. A Hamas-style regime in charge of 79m people and the Suez canal is not a happy thought.

    Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Permalink
  4. proudly kenyan wrote:

    Development/Foreign policy does have different/double standards. There’s Egypt now, Rwanda in the 90s etc…… policies, immigration policies……double standards!!!

    there is something that I have been wondering about though….Doesn’t Prof Collier predict the Egypt/Tunisia situation? Countries of the Bottom billion need benevolent autocrats….up to a certain point and i believe this point is GDP pa capita of USD 2700? What is a benevolent dictator? is it OK if he/she ensures the population has the basics….but then doesn’t allow you to express yourself, and in addition uses state resources to keep the people oppressed, and packs what’s left in a Bank account in Switzerland? Is this especially OK if he is a close ally of the west?

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:


    Certainly popular uprisings can have bad outcomes. The main way that can happen is that a non-democratic force (your Mullahs, Lenin, Mao etc.) takes over, so democracy is not the problem there.

    Past US-supported repression can make bad outcomes more likely. It’s hard to see the solution, then, as more US-supported repression.

    Best. Bill

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink
  6. Brian wrote:

    I never would have thought that a cringingly catchy slogan like “Democracy is for Rich People, Not for Egypt People” would have so many takers.


    This is how our ruling elite treats Americans (with such frauds as money = speech), so it’s little surprise they treat foreigners the same way.

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  7. Vivek Nemana wrote:


    Regarding the Iranian Revolution, one also cannot ignore the intrinsic role that Western governments had in the overthrow of the Shah in ’79. In the 1950s, the Iranian prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh made the unforgivable error of demanding that more of the proceeds coming from the oil wells controlled by the Anglo-Iranian oil companies (later known as BP) went to the Iranian people. At the time, Iran was only receiving 16% of the revenues from their own oil. So the British Government teamed up with the CIA to concoct a false Communist threat — an amazing parallel to modern times, really — to help stage a revolution and install a friendly dictator.

    This is the kind of intervention that of course made the Iranian people livid, and that anger manifest itself under popular support for the Ayatollah. It’s quite easily conceivable that without this kind of geopolitical engineering, the situation in Iran today might have been quite different.

    So I guess my point goes along with Bill’s, that Western-supported repression builds anger like a pressure cooker, and the longer it continues the worse the outcome is when things finally surface. There is simply no excuse for oppressive interference in the lives of other people, and whatever gains the West stands to make are more than offset by the future costs.

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Manuel wrote:

    Of course, it is a fact of realpolitik that when national interests and promotion of democracy abroad collide, the second gives way. But the interesting thing is that the US and other Western countries state that promotion of democracy abroad is one of their national interests. Is this just a shameless public-image stunt? Maybe. But let’s think for a moment it is something else. In fact, something has changed. Thirty years ago the US and its Western allies would be openly and actively trying to help Mubarak, not just bidding their time as they do now. Is this a sign that the idea that democracy abroad is good for us is (slowly) gaining traction in foreign policy/development circles?

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  9. robin_ec wrote:

    Biden’s comments were unexpected blunt, but other than that the reaction from the west has been pretty much what I expected.
    The way I see it, leaders in ‘the West’ are in favour of democratic movements, uprisings, and revolutions only if they lead to governments that work in their interest.
    I also think it’s worth mentioning that they’re all (except Biden), hedging their bets. It’s prudent right now to avoid criticizing Mubarak directly, just in case he holds onto power, while at the same time paying lip service to the people.
    It’s cynical, yes, but at least that way I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised instead of being constantly disappointed by the state of the world. 😉

    Posted February 1, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  10. Neil wrote:

    Prof. Easterly,
    I want to see democracy in Egypt too, but you don’t have to act as if all those who disagree are fools or racists or something. Obviously you are aware of the large body of academic work which suggests that democracy usually only succeeds in countries with a certain level of education/institutions/middle class/gdp per capita.

    Posted February 2, 2011 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  11. William Easterly wrote:

    Neil, advocacy of democratic ideals does not imply those who disagree are fools or racists, it just implies adherence to democratic ideals. I will address the use of the kind of evidence you cite in a subsequent post. best. Bill

    Posted February 2, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  12. SKD wrote:

    Egypt has received from the U.S. an average of $24 million a year from 1999-2009 for what USAID calls good governance and democratization. While there’s obviously been no positive measurable outcomes in good governance, perhaps the investment in democratization is beginning to pay off.

    Posted February 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Achiba Gargule wrote:

    Double standards are not new in foreign policy of US and the west in dealing with ‘strategic issues’. More often than not, where her strategic interests are concerned USA will trash its own ideals of good old democracy, good governance blah blah blah! I guess the realist tradition of state interest take precedence over this matters.

    Posted February 2, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  14. Mario Rizzo wrote:

    I hope this will not be thought irrelevant to the thread. I view the horrendous tratment of Bradley Manning, convicted of nothing, by the US military to be a manifestation of the same corruption of the rule of law as that engaged in by the Mubarak regime against its own political prisoners. Look to ourselves first.

    Posted February 2, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  15. Fiorenzo wrote:

    This is an article written by a Moroccan journalist who argues that Western countries are not only unsupportive of the democratization movement in the Maghreb region but in fact have actively been hindering such processes by buffering dictators in the region.

    Posted February 3, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  16. Vivek Nemana: that is such a long bow as to beyond breaking point. The actual story is much more complicated than that. I recommend this interview with Abbas Milani as giving the much more complicated story.

    Prof. Easterly: Democracy per se is not the problem, but force-fed notions of it might be unhelpful. For example, both Iraq and Afghanistan might have benefited from having the equivalents of a “House of Lords” such as the apparently inconvenient success of Somaliland utilises. (I know that compulsory democracy at the point of a gun is not your thing either, but I am making a more general point here.) Which leads into the issue Neil raised, so I guess we will await your post on the subject.

    Posted February 3, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  17. Zach wrote:

    I don’t think that it has that much to do with rich or poor. Vice president Biden summed it up Egypt is an ally of ours so we chose to look away when things were happening that we did not agree with. As for all the talk about double standards it is just good politics. I am not saying that it is right but sometimes it is better to deal with the devil you know than to possibly get someone in who is worse. I think this is why American leaders originally stuck by president Mubarak.

    Posted February 3, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

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