Opinion

What Italy's history suggests for US policy in Middle East

March 17 isn't just St. Patrick's Day. This year, it's the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Those who don’t believe that Egypt or others in the region can become prosperous democracies should consider the Italy's history – and what it suggests for US policy in the Middle East now.

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March 17 isn’t just St. Patrick’s Day. This year, it’s the 150th anniversary of Italy as a modern state. Not many Americans will be paying attention. But we should.

Those who don’t believe that Egypt, or other countries in the Middle East, can become a prosperous democracy need to take a deep breath – and consider the history of Italy.

Until the mid-19th century, Italy was not a nation-state. Italians were split between Austria, the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, the Vatican, and city-states. While Egypt didn’t emerge as an independent nation until 1954, Italy was more fortunate: It unified 150 years ago this week.

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But Italian democracy of the late 19th century wasn’t pretty. There were no Thomas Jeffersons or George Washingtons, America’s romanticized founding fathers, in Rome or Naples then, as they are not in Cairo or Alexandria today. But political pluralism was. Religious zealots, socialists, big business, monarchists, militarists, farmers, and intellectuals were all there, just as they are in Egypt today.

Zigzags of building a stable democracy

For a time in the first years of the Italian republic, the militarists were ascendant, adding colonies such as Libya and expanding borders. And then for two decades in the early 20th Century, the fascists – the black shirts of Benito Mussolini – were in charge.

The fascist era between the World Wars was a classic chapter in the zigzag story of building stable democracies. Mussolini rose from the failures of a weak democracy and ended his reign dead, at the hands of his own people.

Then, after World War II, with the active support of the United States, Italy got its democracy back on track. Again it was not pretty.

US anti-communist intervention

The 1946 elections produced a coalition government between the Vatican-allied Christian Democrats, the Soviet-backed Communists, and the Socialists. Under pressure from the US, the Communists and their allies were pushed out of the government in mid-1947, and the April 1948 elections became the showdown. Would Italy remain allied with the West? Or would the Communists win an election and then seize dictatorial power?

America’s fear of “one man, one vote, one time” in Italy was as deep in the winter of 1948 as it has been regarding Egypt this winter.

In 1948, the US responded by unleashing the CIA to fund the Christian Democrats and other anti-communist parties. Ten million letters are said to have been generated from Italian Americans urging their relatives in Italy to vote for the anti-communists. Whether or not this intervention was decisive, the results were. The Christian Democrats won 48 percent of the vote, their best showing before or since, while the Communist/Socialist coalition won only 31 percent.

For the next four decades, the US-friendly Christian Democrats held power, even as they changed prime ministers almost every year. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, a top US priority was to keep the left out of the Italian government, and it was successful.

Italian democracy grew and survived

Over the same decades, the Italian economy boomed with the support of the Marshall Plan, the creation of the European Common Market (now the EU), and the defense umbrella of NATO. For a time it became the fourth largest economy in the world, briefly surpassing the UK. The Fellinis of film, the Ferraris of autos, and the Versaces of fashion became worldwide brands.

That didn’t mean that Italy became Sweden. The Sicilian mafia and its criminal cousins in southern Italy remained vibrant and powerful in politics. Government bureaucracy and corruption thrived; tax evasion and undisciplined spending drove state debt to one of the highest in Europe. Today, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s financial and personal antics embarrass Italy around the world.

But, through it all, Italian democracy has survived with real elections, an independent judiciary, and free speech. Today it is a pillar of NATO and the EU.

Arab democracy needs US patience, support

What does this mean for US policy toward Egypt and the Middle East?

Embrace the opportunity for Arabs to build stable democracies, and help them do so. Understand that there will be steps forward and steps back. And provide material support – debt relief, trade opportunities, security guarantees – tied to the consolidation of democratic institutions.

That doesn’t mean, as some who fear the Muslim Brotherhood have suggested, intervening in Egyptian elections as the US did in 1948 in Italy. Today, just months after the US dropped its support for Egypt’s dictator, the US does not have the credibility it had in Italy in 1948 after US troops had liberated Italy from the Nazis.

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Nonetheless, the US should be proactive in ways that are appropriate to the specific circumstances in the region. American leadership, in cooperation with our allies, was critical to Italy becoming a modern, democratic state. We can help Egypt and its neighbors do the same.

Jim Rosapepe, former US Ambassador to Romania, was born in Rome and is co-author of "Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy."

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