Reexamining the Bush Freedom Agenda in the Aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Uprising

Vindicated? : Reexamining the Bush Freedom Agenda in the Aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Uprising - Geoffrey Levin


This paper evaluates how U.S. President George W. Bush’s push for democratization in Egypt may have influenced the 2011 Egyptian uprising. It argues that Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” policy towards Egypt had a number of small but significant effects that both heightened and publicized Egyptians’ discontent with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – effects which were not necessarily intended or central to the Agenda when it was conceived. Specifically, the Freedom Agenda created a period of limited public dialogue, which further alienated Egyptians from their government, and altered the economic environment – all factors which made the 2011 uprising more likely.

Introduction: Looking Beyond Iraq- George W. Bush and the Arab Spring

Throughout the world, the Arab Spring has triggered countless discussions about the region’s prospects for democracy, as brave Middle Easterners risked their lives in hope of bringing down brutal authoritarian regimes. In the United States, the Arab revolts initiated a vigorous debate over the role that President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” played in influencing the uprisings. Even before the fall of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, neoconservative writers and former Bush administration officials began to argue that the massive, pro-democracy protest movements throughout the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) vindicated President Bush’s efforts to transform the region. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams was among those who launched the media debate, asserting in a January 30th Washington Post piece that “the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right.”1 Citing Bush’s landmark 2003 National Endowment for Democracy speech in which the president outlined his so-called Freedom Agenda, Abrams framed Bush as both a prophet and a model, whose vision should be embraced by policymakers today. 

At the same time, other commentators were arguing the exact opposite. The day of Mubarak’s departure, journalist Jennifer Wiens argued in her National Public Radio Online piece “The Messy Failure of the Freedom Agenda” that the Egyptian people alone were to credit for the protests there, faulting Bush for a flawed vision that involved “barging in…to someone else’s house.”2 Supporting Abrams’s argument, neoconservative thinker Charles Krauthammer claimed that now “everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda”, further asserting that “the Bush Doctrine set the premise” for the new Arab “reach for dignity and freedom”, and that “to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functional [model for] Arab Democracy.”3 Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations dismissed such arguments, accusing neoconservative pundits of “using [the Arab Spring] to retrospectively justify a misbegotten war”, citing a number of polls showing that most Arabs “do not see Iraq as a shining example for their societies.”4

It appears that commentators on both sides of the debate are stuck in old battles about Iraq, ignoring questions of whether or not Bush’s other policies helped instigate the Arab Spring. In their attempt to either “vindicate” the entirety of Bush’s Freedom Agenda or refute its role fully, they neglected to look beyond Iraq. Rather than debating whether Bush was “right”, it is necessary to ask – “did certain Bush policies make the Arab Spring more likely?”   Egypt’s association with both the Arab Spring and the Freedom Agenda makes it an ideal case study for answering this question. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution ended the thirty-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, an authoritarian leader who appeared to maintain a strong grip on his country until his last month in power. In those thirty years, the ‘static system’ in Egypt faced a relatively small number of major public challenges – but one of those challenges came, however meekly, from the Bush administration. In the context of the Freedom Agenda, Bush forced Mubarak to hold multi-candidate elections for the first time in 2005. Although the outcome of the elections was clearly predetermined by the regime, unintended effects of Bush’s pressure on Mubarak appear to have contributed to the 2011 uprisings. Due in part to backlash after the unfair elections, socio-psychological effects of the pre-election national debate, the full public unveiling of Mubarak’s hypocrisy, and the economic effect of Bush-inspired trade liberalization in a corrupt environment, there is a strong case to be made that George W. Bush’s policies toward Egypt played a limited role in fomenting the revolution that occurred two years after he left office.

The Bush Freedom Agenda: From Roots to Consequences

Evaluating the effects of the Freedom Agenda – a set of Bush administration policies aimed at promoting democracy as a way of combating extremism, particularly in the greater Middle East, requires understanding the context in which it arose.5 Citing passages from Bush’s first inaugural address, University of Chicago Professor Marvin Zonis points out that democracy promotion was part of Bush’s foreign policy from his inaugural address onward.6 September 11th played a pivotal role in determining the way in which Bush envisioned democracy promotion might be carried out. According to Harvard University scholar Jonathan Monten, pre-9/11, Bush had an “exemplarist” vision for democracy promotion, which involved the U.S. serving as an example and inspiration for democracy abroad by embracing liberal values at home. After 9/11, Bush felt that the terrorist threat compelled the U.S. to actively push for democracy abroad.7 Bush then put forward the notion that promoting democracy was vital for short and long-term U.S. security. Rather than seeing anti-American extremism as a reaction to what some perceived as U.S. imperialism, Bush viewed terrorism as a result of the “democracy deficit” in the Muslim world, arguing, "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."8 

In 2002, the Bush administration founded the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a development program that aims to use soft power to spread democratic values. The administration went further, making democracy promotion the centerpiece of a National Security Strategy report that year.9 The message in the report was deeply ideological, arguing that spreading freedom also meant combating terrorism. Yet despite Bush’s rhetorical emphasis on democracy promotion, that argument was secondary when the administration argued for intervention in Iraq. When making the case for war to America and to the world, Bush focused on the immediate security threat of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). While it had been easy to build a national and international coalition to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the horrifying events of September 11, finding allies for Iraq was more difficult. Emphasizing the threat Saddam Hussein’s WMDs posed was the core argument Bush used to convince Americans to go to war. In his February 2003 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Bush talked at length about the value of democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq, but democracy promotion was framed as a path forward for the country, not as a primary justification to go to war with it.10 The president began that speech by invoking memories of 9/11 before going on to the threat posed in Iraq by “a dictator [who] is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world…[and who] has close ties to terrorist organizations.”11 Iraqi freedom would only be mentioned afterward, posed as a worthy post-war challenge that the U.S. had to undertake because the WMD threat had made regime change necessary.  


As time went on, the Bush administration’s justification for the Iraq War began to shift. The U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003, and toppled the regime within weeks. Months passed, and though the U.S. had gained control of the country, the WMDs that had justified the invasion were not found. Though the Bush administration publicly stuck to its WMD claims, this justification began to erode, as an impatient public waited for some sort of “smoking gun” to be discovered. Though the administration may have once believed that Iraq had WMDs, at this point they likely felt motivated to emphasize a different justification for the war, particularly as an election year was coming up. The November 2003 National Endowment for Democracy speech marked the point at which Bush made democracy promotion the core justification for the Iraq War and his MENA policy as a whole. Throughout the entire speech Bush did not mention WMDs once, signifying the decline of that narrative. Instead, 2003 marked the beginning of what could be termed as the “Golden Era” of the Bush Freedom Agenda, which would last until 2006, the year that saw Hamas prevail in the U.S.-supported Palestinian Authority election.

Though democracy promotion was part of Bush’s foreign policy from the start, it became an ideology of political necessity as the WMD threat from Iraq remained unproven. Perhaps hoping to echo Reagan’s perceived boldness in confronting communism, the administration took a more comprehensive approach to forwarding the Freedom Agenda. To a limited extent, the Bush administration departed from the traditional realist approach toward authoritarian regimes in the region, flirting with the idea of breaking the conventional U.S. approach to the region – an approach that involved accommodating the Arab world’s many authoritarian leaders out of fear that Islamists would win elections. However, despite this flirtation, when vital, short-term interests were at stake, the Bush administration did little to threaten important strategic alliances.

Dr. Stanley Renshon of the City University of New York notes these clear inconsistencies in the application of Bush’s Freedom Agenda, calling into question the viability of forcefully promoting democracy in a world where doing so could threaten U.S. economic and security interests. Renshon writes: “Washington has stepped up pressure on repressive regimes in countries such as Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe – where the costs of confrontation are minimal – while still dealing gingerly with China, Pakistan, Russia, and other countries with strategic and trade significance.”12  It was convenient for Bush to talk about the Freedom Agenda in reference to countries like Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and even politically necessary for him to do so in reference to post-invasion Iraq. But in more difficult or complicated cases, Bush remained silent. Interestingly, there was one case in particular where Bush exerted a certain degree of public pressure on an ally – the Arab Republic of Egypt.

2005: The Freedom Agenda Hits Egypt

Though 2005 would be the most important year in the complicated Bush-Mubarak relationship, the preceding three years are vital for understanding the context in which Bush’s push for Egyptian democratization arose. No American president asked for as much from Hosni Mubarak as George W. Bush did. During Bush's “War on Terror” Egypt carried out three key tasks at the request of the Bush administration. Firstly, Mubarak actively maintained good relations with Israel throughout the turbulent years of the “War on Terror” and Second Intifada, curbing Egypt’s Islamist opposition to both Israel and the West as a whole. Secondly, Egypt’s state intelligence services offered the Bush administration valuable information from the Islamic world that the U.S. could not get on its own; as Rutgers University Professor Lloyd Gardner put it in his recent book The Road to Tahrir Square, Egypt offered the U.S. a “window into Iran”, with Egyptian intelligence chief and Mubarak ally Oman Suleiman serving as the window’s gatekeeper.13 Thirdly and perhaps most importantly was Egypt’s key role in what the Bush administration called “extraordinary rendition.” Though some in the Bush administration believed that ordinary interrogation techniques were not sufficient in extracting information from terrorists, Congress and the Constitution limited the administration’s options. This necessitated an alternative practice, euphemistically referred to as “extraordinary rendition”, which involved sending terrorists captured in Iraq or Afghanistan to a third state to be interrogated by the local government. Egypt, long known for domestic human rights abuses, was a primary recipient of these terrorist suspects, torturing as many as one hundred detainees on Bush’s implicit orders.14 Thus, when the U.S. condemnation of Egyptian human rights abuses became more prominent in 2005, Mubarak and his associates found the criticism to be particularly ironic.15


Nonetheless, Bush began ramping up the rhetoric pushing for Egyptian liberalization in early 2005. While he may have done so to give more substance to the doctrine that justified the then-failing Iraq War, there was an ideological basis as well – neoconservative thinkers had long hoped that the road to Iraq would eventually lead to Cairo, the cultural capital of the Arab world.16 So in the midst of the Iraq War’s darkest days, the push for Egyptian democratization commenced, beginning with Bush’s 2005 State of the Union Address, when he stated, “the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”17 That same month, Bush would feel obligated to turn those words into action after Egypt chose to arrest opposition politician Ayman Nour on forgery charges.18 Though after initial private meetings with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and the U.S. National Security Advisor, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said the issue of human rights and political reform were not mentioned by the Americans, the Bush administration soon faced “growing pressure to match its rhetoric on spreading freedom…with concerted action” as the administration “was being grilled by the media about Nour’s arrest”, according to Egypt’s semi-official newspaper, Al-Ahram Weekly.19 During a joint press conference on February 22nd, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finally brought up the Nour issue directly. Al-Ahram Weekly reported: “‘I did raise our concerns, our very strong concerns, about this case,” Rice told reporters, stopping just short of calling upon Cairo to release the opposition party leader. “…I expressed our very strong hope that there will be a resolution of this very soon,’ she said.”20

After that public statement, the Bush administration advanced with greater force on the issue of Egyptian political reform; Secretary Rice “subsequently decided to bypass Cairo on a planned trip to the region, forcing the regime to cancel abruptly a conference she was to keynote.”21 After weeks of sustained pressure from the Bush administration, in March 2005, Mubarak “not only ordered the parliament to amend the constitution to allow contested elections, but he also freed Nour.”22 Although Mubarak now committed to planning at least some sort of contested election later that year, the Bush administration did not drop the issue quite yet. In a speech at the American University in June 2005, Rice called on Egypt “to guarantee free elections that Fall, as a natural follow up to a national referendum that changed the constitution to permit multiple candidates,” further stating that, “when we talk about democracy, though, we are referring to governments that protect certain basic rights for all their citizens -- among these, the right to speak freely…And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police.”23 She met with Mubarak in Cairo, underlying the importance of free, multiparty elections and stating that “The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this journey [to regional democracy], just as you have led…this region in the past.”24 During Rice’s subsequent joint press conference with Gheit in Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Minister replied, “Who would object to fair, transparent elections? It will be so, I assure you.”25

It would not be so. Despite the public assurances from the Mubarak regime and the high-minded rhetoric from the Bush administration, the 2005 Egyptian presidential and parliamentary elections were illegitimate. Very few candidates were permitted to run for president, and the parliamentary elections, once heralded as a real opportunity for reform, were rigged in a variety of conspicuous ways to ensure a Mubarak-friendly result. In the official results, Mubarak beat Ayman Nour – one of the few challengers permitted to run – with 89% of the vote to Nour’s 7%. Even so, Mubarak again had Nour arrested on forgery charges and sentenced to five years in prison, where he would remain for the rest of Bush’s presidency.26 At the same time, Mubarak had the election laws altered to make it even more difficult for a viable challenger to emerge in future presidential elections. As Gardner points out, “there were no Mubarak visits to Washington during Bush’s second term. Rice canceled a second trip to Cairo, and Bush mentioned Nour in a speech.”27 The Bush administration was not pleased.  

Yet despite Mubarak’s open disdain for Bush’s liberalization demands, the administration responded only with muted disapproval, never again making the same public demands that characterized Bush’s Egypt policy in 2005. This had less to do with Egypt and more to do with the Freedom Agenda, which was meeting more obstacles in 2006 than Bush had anticipated. Central to Bush’s change in tone toward Egypt was the way democratization was unfolding in Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. In Palestine, Secretary Rice had pressed both the Israeli government and Fatah leaders – against their wishes and in violation of certain provisions in the Oslo Accords – to allow the Hamas-aligned Freedom and Justice Party to run in the 2006 Palestinian Authority legislative elections. On January 26th, 2006, in results that shocked the world, Hamas won 74 seats to Fatah’s 45, which, though only a three percent victory in the popular vote, allowed Hamas to form a government and choose the new prime minister. The Palestinian elections seemed to prove the long-held American fear that if democracy was to spread to the Middle East, Islamists would be the winners and the United States and Israel would be the ultimate losers. Meanwhile, chaos in post-Saddam Iraq combined with Hezbollah’s provocation of a war with Israel one year after the Cedar Revolution seemed to indicate that even if Arabs elected moderate democrats, such figures would be too weak to handle the harsh realities of the region.  

Mubarak seized the narrative, telling the Bush administration that the disasters in Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon proved his long-held position – that Bush needed him to make sure that Islamists did not take control. Mubarak claimed that Iran and Islamists were the biggest beneficiaries of the chaos in Iraq, and Gheit made public statements alluding to what was at stake in Egypt.28 The Bush administration got the message. In 2006, the Freedom Agenda was in shambles, and Bush certainly was not going to risk losing the Middle East’s most populous state to Islamism– particularly one with a fragile peace agreement with neighboring Israel. Yet despite Mubarak’s warning and the political chaos in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, the Bush administration continued to use Freedom Agenda-inspired rhetoric. In the midst of the chaos of 2006, Secretary Rice famously declared, “What we’re seeing the growing, the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we are pushing forward to the New Middle East, not going back to the old one.”29

But the rhetoric was empty, at least in regard to Egypt, as the Bush administration privately clung to the Mubarak regime more than ever before. Thus the year 2006 marked the end of the “Golden Era” of the Bush Freedom Agenda, as demonstrated by the Bush administration’s markedly different reaction to the second Ayman Nour arrest. Rather than boldly pressuring Mubarak on the issue as they had in 2005, in 2006, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardoine went so far as to blur the reasons for Nour’s imprisonment, saying that there was no consensus even in Egypt on Nour’s guilt of the forgery charges. “I bet if there are a hundred people, I bet I’d get a hundred different answers…you know if Egyptians are not sure what to make of this, then I hope you will forgive Americans for not understanding the complexity of the case”, the ambassador stated in a press conference.30 This bizarre reversal prompted American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin to allege that Ricciardoine and a rogue State Department were the primary forces behind the administration’s abandonment of Egyptian democratization, citing three things – Ricciardoine’s assurance to an Egyptian news anchor that the U.S. would cease applying pressure for reform; the way U.S. development funds were channeled primarily to the government rather than Egyptian civil society; and a 2006 speech to Egyptian students where Ricciardoine said Mubarak was so respected that “he would win elections in the United States as a leader who is a giant on the world stage.”31


But contrary to Rubin’s assertion, Bush himself was involved in this shift in tone. It was Bush’s call to nominate Ricciardoine, who Rubin paints as a realist known for accommodating authoritarian regimes. All decisions for funding, including those funneled through the somewhat confused and mission-less Middle East Partnership Initiative founded by Bush, ultimately lay with the executive branch. More evidence lies in the actions of Bush’s own office. The original White House draft of Bush’s speech for the 2008 World Economic Forum at Sharm el-Sheik included a “Reagan-like ‘tear down this wall’ demand that Nour be released”, but the final speech was instead only a mild lecture with no mention of Nour’s name.32 Saudi King Abdullah would further press Bush to stick with Mubarak against radicals during that meeting, while Mubarak himself responded to Bush’s private political reforms push by saying that democracy would only bring chaos and instability, citing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the primary cause for Islamic radicalism, not any “democracy deficit.”33 

From 2006 on, Bush’s Freedom Agenda for Egypt remained little more than hollow rhetoric. However, Bush knew that he could not abandon his foreign policy narrative entirely, as there were still domestic political concerns to be dealt with. Yet as time went on, it became harder to remain consistent on the issue without further pressuring Mubarak on the political reforms he so vociferously resisted. As a result, the Bush administration began “defining ‘freedom’ for the region in neoliberal economic terms”, meaning that the emphasis on economic liberalization continued even as the issue of political liberalization faded into the background.34 This was justified in part by the administration’s argument that economic freedom ultimately leads to other forms of freedom. Indeed, even in the 2002 National Security Strategy, “Igniting a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade” was a core component, and remained so in the NSS’s 2006 update. Funding for MEFTA (The Middle East Free Trade Agreement found in 2003) continued in Bush’s later years. The U.S. would continue to pressure Egypt to ‘open up’ its economy, but after 2006, stopped pressing Egypt to open its society.

The Legacy of Bush’s Freedom Agenda on Egypt: Roots of a Revolution?

Looking back, there are three main ways in which Bush’s Freedom Agenda-inspired policies toward Egypt appear to have helped set the stage for a future uprising in the country. First, there is the case of Mubarak’s backlash against the Egyptian opposition after the 2005 elections. According to Gregory Aftandilian of the Strategic Studies Institute, Egypt adopted a liberal policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2005 in an effort to scare the Bush administration away from their push for political reform, “releasing members from prison, allowing the organization to campaign openly using religious slogans…and even affording the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood an interview in the semi-official newspaper.”35 But after the Brotherhood showed more strength than Mubarak expected in the 2005 parliamentary election, government-sponsored suppression against the Brotherhood and other opposition groups began, and as a consequence the next five years of Mubarak’s rule were to be even more authoritarian than ever before. This lesson may have informed the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior in 2011. Then, they kept a low profile in the early protests, aware that conspicuous participation would have encouraged international leaders to embrace Mubarak more closely, scared secular Egyptians away from a movement that appeared Islamist-aligned, and merited an even stronger military crackdown. Indeed, lessons of 2005 may have played a major role in guiding the Muslim Brotherhood’s muted response to the protest movement of 2011.

The Bush Freedom Agenda of 2005 had made things worse for Egyptians 2006-2010, only adding to the anger and indignities that helped fuel the protests of 2011. The entire 2005 election process was a humiliating experience for Egyptians – unlike the authoritarian-yet-straightforward national referendums of the past, the regime now played games in order to appease foreigners, pretending that Egypt had real choices and exposing the depths of Mubarak’s hypocrisy.36 Then after the “election”, politicians who did relatively well were punished and those who had dared to express their opinions were oppressed. Because of the results of the Bush-targeted liberalization of 2005, the 2010 Egyptian legislative elections were termed by many to be the “most fraudulent ever.”37 Signs of backlash emerged on many fronts in the months after the “ugly election” of 2005, with denouncements of the government coming on many fronts. In December 2005, The Washington Post noted that “Forty-four prominent citizens, including leading journalists and intellectuals, issued a statement declaring that ‘the fraud may lead to a collapse in the legitimacy of the state and the current regime.’"38 The erosion of legitimacy coincided with increased repression in the years, and elections to come. In the elections of 2010, freedom of speech was limited further, as documented by Freedom House’s downgrade of Egyptian media openness from “partially free” to “not free”, which came as the government cracked down on journalists and bloggers.39 Backlash from the 2010 elections would set the stage for the historic events to come, as even in early December 2010 some could see the way in which the fraudulent elections served to strengthen and unite Egypt’s splintered opposition.40

The second way in which Bush’s Freedom Agenda may have stimulated the 2011 protests was by encouraging Egyptians to think about their future in a new way, while also fostering space for limited debate, even though it did not last long. An article by Human Rights Watch entitled “Egypt: Elections Offers Public Debate, Not Free Choice”, asserted exactly that – although the elections were fraudulent, they did, in fact, initiate a new level of public dialogue.41 In September 2005, Joe Stork, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East & North Africa division, said it best: “The significance of this election isn’t the possibility of unseating Mubarak, but the fact that many Egyptians have boldly challenged his quarter-century of rule. Their willingness to speak out has generated a serious public debate instead of just another presidential plebiscite.”42 

It is hard to discount the effect that those months of public debate may have had on the long-term thought process of Egyptians, who rarely had any opportunities for political dialogue in the past. Viewing the years 1981 to 2011 as a static period of collective Egyptian thought, which ended only when Mohammad Bouazizi awakened an entire region by setting himself on fire, oversimplifies the situation. Events occurred during that thirty-year period, events that cumulatively set the stage for the sparks of Tunisia to ignite the Egyptian tinderbox. The system in Egypt may have been static, but the minds of Egyptians were not. The 2005 debate can be seen as an important benchmark. Just as Mubarak was squashing the public dialogue in the aftermath of the election’s outcome, Egyptians were finding new ways to communicate and carry on the debates about their future that 2005 helped facilitated. Internet access in Egypt went from 0.7% in the year 2000 to 7% by 2006, and then increased to 12.9% in 2008, 21.1% in 2009, and then 28% on the eve of the revolution.43 The discussions about Mubarak’s many hypocrisies, crimes, and flaws amongst Egyptians in 2005 probably did not end right after the election. More likely, repression forced criticism of Mubarak to go underground, and during the 2011 uprisings, the internet would play an important role in both planning protests and facilitating dialogue amongst Egyptians and the world at large. While Bush’s foreign policy had many flaws, this seems to be at least one piece of evidence that it helped facilitate the debate that would ultimately lead to Mubarak’s downfall.  

The third way in which the Freedom Agenda appears to have helped spur the 2011 Revolution was certainly inadvertent, and is also unlikely to be advertised by Bush’s conservative supporters. Several unintentional economic effects of the Bush-inspired trade liberalization seem to have helped foment the social discontent that brought so many Egyptians to the streets last year. Many argue that trade liberalization can widen the economic gaps between the rich and poor in general – in Egypt’s corrupt system of crony capitalism, this certainly was the case. High-ranking officers in the Egyptian military and those with connections to the regime have long received “sweetheart deals” in government-facilitated private contracts or trade deals in order to strengthen their loyalty to the regime. As Bush, through his METFA and open economy efforts, brought Egypt deeper into the global market capitalist system, the traditional rules of the free-market certainly did not exist internally. This had the effect of exacerbating the negative consequences of trade liberalization on economic equality. 

Oz Hassan of the University of Warwick points out that Bush’s Freedom Agenda was particularly conservative in its “emphasis on safeguarding the socio-economic privileges and power of the established autocratic allies in the region.”44 Bush policies remained in line with the “Washington Consensus” approach: opening markets based on “the prescriptions of neoliberal economics, and pushing for free trade integration.”45 The combination of neoliberal economics and widespread corruption proved to be a toxic cocktail for the country, exacerbating the economic divisions that served as a major cause of the economic discontent. The growing population of unemployed youth saw the rich getting richer while they felt poorer, which was one of the many reasons why the streets of Cairo were so full of protesters.46 As Hassan also points out, opening the Egyptian market and making it more interdependent with the West also made it more vulnerable to international economic downturns than a more closed economy would have been.47 As a result, Egypt and other Arab countries, such as Tunisia, were more exposed to the 2008 global economic crisis than they otherwise would have been, adding to the woes that fomented the 2011 uprisings. The economic component of the Arab Spring protest movements cannot be written off, nor can its connection with the Bush’s Freedom Agenda be ignored.

Conclusion: The Limits, Failures (and Successes?) of Bush's Freedom Agenda

As many scholars and commentators have argued, the War in Iraq appears to have been an unmitigated disaster for U.S. interests in the Middle East. Although not directly assessed in this paper, the case made by Cook and others that the war only served to hinder broader Arab democratic growth seems quite compelling.48 Even without the Iraq War, Bush’s Freedom Agenda model was likely doomed to fail. The idea that global democratization serves U.S. interests in the long run may well be true on paper, but in the real world, the democratic demands of Arabs are bound to contradict and conflict with many of America’s short-term interests and security needs, as is demonstrated by the popularity of Islamist parties in the region today.  

The Bush administration had no answer to these contradictions, seeming entirely surprised by Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, the chaos in Iraq, and the war Hezbollah caused from within Lebanon’s weak democracy. Bush officials somehow believe that their “partnership” model aimed at preserving the socioeconomic powers in the region would yield fruit through a gradual process of democratization, yet as Hassan points out, they had no way to respond when this did not occur.49 Thus the core assertion of the Bush Freedom Agenda – that the American-led democratization of the Middle East was in America’s national interest – appears to have been false; indeed, the Freedom Agenda itself was fatally flawed due to the conflict of interest between Arab democracy and U.S. security and economic needs. As Egypt appears to be embracing Islamism while protests have continued, making the future of U.S. interests in the region less secure, this key tenet of Bush’s foreign policy does not look like it will be vindicated any time soon. Rather, Hosni Mubarak, who warned Bush that Islamism or chaos would arise in Egypt without him, might be the one vindicated in the end.


However, there was a second assumption underlying Bush’s Freedom Agenda – that Arabs, like any other people, yearn for freedom and self-determination, and will eventually come to appreciate openly such values. On this philosophical assumption, it looks like Bush was right – particularly in contrast with those who doubted Arab society would ever produce mass pro-democracy movements. But the intended effect of America’s linear influence on the region was far more limited than Bush had ever imagined, and when confronted with reality, his policy agenda, which never was very consistent, fell apart.  

As demonstrated, there are clear lines connecting Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the Egyptian Revolution. But rather than going through Mubarak, the lines go through the Egyptian people who risked their lives for liberty. Bush’s Egypt policy did help facilitate the Egyptian uprising, but not in ways he expected. It was Bush who forced Mubarak to hold the 2005 elections, leading both to a period of national dialogue and a subsequent crackdown, which made a future uprising all the more likely. Unwittingly, since Egypt’s corruption-driven economic inequalities were exacerbated by the economic liberalization that Bush pushed, it was the Freedom Agenda’s economic component that helped to produce the many angry unemployed youths who filled Tahrir Square last February. 

The sad irony is that a more moderate, less ambitious, and long-term approach to promoting Middle Eastern democracy probably would have been the most appropriate path for America to follow. In her 2004 article for Policy Review, Tamara Cofman Wittes outlined such a plan for a milder form of democracy promotion, pointing to Kuwait as an ideal model.50 An enlightened policy would not stress “cosmetic” elections as Bush did when he was hoping to build on his post-Iraq narrative, but rather on pressing “Arab regimes to reform their politics, not just their political processes.”51 As Egypt approaches it first post-revolution presidential elections, Obama and other world leaders should pay attention to scholars like Wittes who emphasize looking beyond political processes alone when fostering democratization. As the Arab Spring continues to unfold, the lessons of past attempts at Arab democratization are more important than ever, as the legacy of the Bush Freedom Agenda continues to influence politics in the region.

Notes & References

  1. Elliot Abrams, "In the streets of Cairo, proof Bush was right," The Washington Post, January 30, 2011. FC5LE_story.html
  2. Jennifer Wiens, “The Messy Failure of the Freedom Agenda,” National Public Radio Online, Febuary 11, 2011.
  3. Charles Krauthammer, “From Baghdad to Benghazi,” The Washington Post, March 4, 2011.
  4. Steven A. Cook, “America's Radical Idealists Strike Again,” The American Interest, July/August 2011.
  5. George W. Bush “The Freedom Agenda Fact Sheet.” The White House Archives. Washington: 10 Dec, 2008.
  6. Marvin Zones, “The ‘Democracy Doctrine’ of President George W. Bush,” in Understanding the Bush Doctrine: Psychology and Strategy in an Age of Terror, ed. Stanley A. Rehnson and Peter Suedfeld (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007): 231.
  7. Alexander Moens “The Bush Doctrine Abroad,” in Understanding the Bush Doctrine: Psychology and Strategy in an Age of Terror, ed. Stanley A. Rehnson and Peter Suedfeld (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007): 263.
  8. George W. Bush “On Freedom in Iraq and the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy” Washington: 6 Nov 2003. http://georgewbus
  9. Marvin Zones, “The ‘Democracy Doctrine’ of President George W. Bush,” 232.
  10. George W. Bush, “Full text: George Bush's speech to the American Enterprise Institute,” The Guardian, February 27, 2003.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Stanley A. Rehnson, “The Bush Doctrine Considered,” in Understanding the Bush Doctrine: Psychology and Strategy in an Age of Terror, ed. Stanley A. Rehnson and Peter Suedfeld (Taylor & Francis Group, 2007): 21.
  13. Lloyd C. Gardner, The Road to Tahrir Square: Egypt and the United States from the Rise of Nasser to the Fall of Mubarak (Saqi Books, 2011): 168.
  14. Ibid., 151.
  15. Ibid., 166.
  16. Ibid., 175.
  17. George W. Bush, “State of the Union Address,” February 2, 2005.
  18. Michael Rubin, “The Road to Tahrir Square,” Commentary Magazine, March 2011.  
  19. Khaled Dawoud, “U.S. Visit Soured by Nour Arrest,” Al-Ahram Weekly, February 23, 2005.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Michael Rubin, “The Road to Tahrir Square.”
  22. Lloyd C. Gardner, The Road to Tahrir Square, 176
  23. Condoleezza Rice. “Secretary Rice Urges Democratic Change in the Middle East” American University, Washington DC, 20 June 2005.
  24. Rice, 2005  
  25. Lloyd C. Gardner, The Road to Tahrir Square, 176.
  26. Ibid., 176.
  27. Ibid., 176.
  28. Ibid., 178.
  29. Ibid., 178.
  30. Rubin, “The Road to Tahrir Square.”
  31. Lloyd C. Gardner, The Road to Tahrir Square, 178
  32. Gardner, The Road to Tahrir Square, 178
  33. Oz Hassan, “American Democracy Promotion and the ‘Arab Spring’,” The University of Warwick Knowledge Centre (2011):
  35. Gregory Aftandilian, “Presidential Succession Scenarios in Egypt and Their Impact on U.S.-Egyptian Strategic Relations,” The Strategic Studies Institute, September 30, 2011, 29.
  36. “Countries at the Crossroads 2007.” Freedom House, 2007.
  37. Simon Tisdall, “Hosni Mubarak: Egyptian 'pharaoh' dethroned amid gunfire and blood,” The Guardian, February 11, 2011.
  38. “Egypt’s Ugly Election” The Washington Post, December 10, 2005.
  39. Karin Deutsch Karlekar. “Press Freedom in 2010: Signs of Change Amid Repression” Freedom House. January 2011.
  40. Khairi Abaza, “Election rigging leads to Egypt’s first major opposition boycott” The Daily Called, December 7, 2010.
  41. “Egypt: Election Offers Public Debate, Not Free Speech” Human Rights Watch 1 Sept 2005.
  42. “Egypt: Election Offers Public Debate, Not Free Speech” Human Rights Watch 1 Sept 2005.
  43. “Egypt: Internet Usage and Telecommunications Reports”
  44. Oz Hassan, “American Democracy Promotion and the ‘Arab Spring’,” 46.
  45. Ibid., 46.
  46. Ibid., 47.
  47. Ibid., 47.
  48. Steven A. Cook, “America's Radical Idealists Strike Again,” The American Interest, July/August 2011.
  49. Oz Hassan, “American Democracy Promotion and the ‘Arab Spring’,” 46.
  50. Tamara Cofman Witts. “The Promise of Arab Liberalism,” Policy Review, no. 125 (June, 2004).
  51. Ibid.
Geoffrey Levin, originally from Wheeling, Illinois, is a graduate student studying Conflict Management and Middle East Studies at the The Johns Hopkins University's SAIS Bologna Center. Before graduate school, Geoff worked as a staff writer for a public affairs magazine in Melbourne, Australia, writing primarily about Middle Eastern politics and the Arab Spring. As an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, Geoff was named the top graduating senior by the international relations department. After SAIS, Geoff plans to pursue a PhD in political science or international relations.