The Arab World Shakes

The dramatic scenes from Tunis, Sana’a and especially Cairo continue to exhilarate observers across the globe. These images of men, women and children braving riot police, tear gas and decades of authoritarianism to seize their economic, social and political futures point to what seemed impossible a mere month ago: the tumbling of decades-long corrupt and despotic regimes. As over a million Egyptians now peacefully and jubilantly descend on Tahrir, or Liberation, Square in downtown Cairo to demand the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, it is apparent that history is unfolding before our eyes.

Excitement and guarded optimism is appropriate, although this must not preclude caution and nuanced analysis. For example, while it may be tempting to view these events in the Arab world as a unified wave of democratic transformation, the reality is that they are taking place in diverse contexts with differing histories, singular challenges and opportunities, and distinct demands from the protesters, as well as varying degrees of leverage for the leaders to respond to their citizenry.

Yet despite these important differences, for the United States, one reality is patently clear: Pandora’s Box has been opened. A quarter century of American foreign policy designed to preserve the façade of stability in the Arab world is no longer sustainable.

This month’s events are the latest and most damning pieces of evidence that these tactics are failing, particularly as the key sites of unrest – Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Tunisia – are all benefactors of U.S. military assistance.

How the Obama Administration reacts now is critical. In a region where terrorism and war remain omnipresent possibilities, how can the Administration both mitigate real security threats, which depends on these regimes’ cooperation, and champion the people’s legitimate demands, which may ultimately lead to the regimes toppling?

Recognize the crises of political authority and support long-term stability over short-term security.

U.S. policy in the Arab world depends on alliances with unpopular regimes. For decades, American administrations have employed quick-fix approaches to contain immediate security threats through military aid or capacity-building for anemic institutions. The Obama Administration, however, can no longer afford to prop up political conditions that are inherently unstable and that intensify the potential for enduring violence and chaos.

American interventions must account for the core challenge in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen: the need for substantial reform in political architecture. Throughout the region, cadres of elites surrounding the head-of-state hold an unyielding grip on their countries’ political, military and commercial interests. It is these entrenched and interconnected systems of patronage, corruption and repression that protesters seek to dismantle. While the scale of the demonstrations may be unprecedented, the frustration is not, nor is people’s recognition that their futures have been high-jacked by these oppressive systems.

American governments have consistently overlooked these profound crises of political authority, prioritizing temporary security over a sustainable stability that requires greater political imagination and audacity. Although economic and military approaches are imperative, they cannot substitute for structural ones. At best, these will fail to adequately respond to the context of instability; at worse, overly centralized approaches that focus on empowering the central government without promise for reform could further descend the region into political and social upheaval.

Treat the demonstrations as an opportunity rather than a threat and participate in the transition of these despotic states into stable democracies.

To confront the sundry of political crises in the Arab world, the Obama Administration must listen to the deafening song of discontent and act as an ally in the people’s legitimate demands for democracy and self-determination. Rather than simply reacting to the transformations that will inevitably follow, it should proactively – though cautiously –support change.

This necessitates more than asking the detested and feckless inner circles of leadership to seek reform on their terms. It will require robust engagement with a broad spectrum of political, religious, economic and civil society leaders, as well as political allies, to achieve effective durable solutions and transition these authoritarian regimes to responsive democracies.

In Egypt, that would mean supporting a stable transitional government – led by Nobel laureate and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed Elbaradei, current Vice President Omar Suleiman, or another figure acceptable to the Egyptian people – that can guide the country through a meaningful process of reform and elections in the coming months.

A fundamental question is the role of Islamist groups in the recent protests and their potential fallout. In Tunisia, where politically active Islamic leaders were often jailed or exiled, these groups contributed little to the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had remained aloof until Friday’s momentous protests, joining an opposition coalition with Elbaradei and others.

This is not to diminish the undeniable role of Islam in both motivating individual protesters and unifying the masses, nor to discount its potential political reemergence at a later point. However, the relative inconspicuousness of Islamist groups, and complete irrelevance of jihadist movements, in pushing these regimes to the brink has been an unanticipated side-story. It defies the prevailing wisdom in some policy circles that political transformation in the Arab world will necessarily lead to some form of Islamic revolution, a fallacious view that has in large part driven American support for these repressive regimes.

It would behoove the U.S. to constructively support this process of change and democratic transition, rather than to ignore it. Is there a realistic alternative? Even if this latest round of mass protests does not further topple regimes (although with the Egyptian army apparently siding with the demonstrators, President Mubarak’s days are likely numbered), corrupt and authoritarian leaders like Mubarak will not live forever. Looking back to another seminal moment in Middle East history, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, this should have taught American policymakers that presumed allies are not immortal and that alienating large segments of populations can have devastating repercussions.

By siding with detested governments in 2011, implicitly or explicitly, the Obama Administration risks turning popular movements for change against the U.S. That is quite a gamble.

Transform engrained anti-American narratives and side with the people.

The Administration has been granted a singular opportunity to transform deep-rooted regional narratives that associate American power with dictatorship and repression. Given the copious amounts of American security assistance to the regimes in Egypt ($1.5 billion annually) and Yemen (nearly $175 million in 2010) in particular, even a “neutral” position like calling for Mubarak to dialogue with the protestors and heed calls for reform may be perceived as the U.S. backing its ally. The Egyptian demonstrators, some of whom have begun to chant “Mubarak, you coward, you agent of the United States,” certainly recognize the link between American aid and their despot’s iron fist. Images of riot police using tear gas canisters that bear the label “Made in U.S.A,” coupled with American diplomats’ equivocation, only reinforce this association.

The tide has irrevocably turned, and the United States must now back the people. If the U.S. can wisely and prudently support these courageous protesters to achieve their dreams for democracy, freedom and dignity, it will demonstrate to the region and world its “unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” President Obama’s 2009 address to the broader Muslim world, appropriately given in Cairo, certainly rings true today.

Change is afoot. And to think that it all started with a twenty-six year old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire to protest the humiliating confiscation of his fruits and vegetables.

JAMES R. KING is an independent analyst, specializing in Zaydism, Yemen and the broader Middle East. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, King lived in Yemen in 2007 as part of an American Institute for Yemeni Studies fellowship, where he conducted interviews with leading Zaydi scholars on the Zaydi community in Yemen. This research was published as “Zaydis in a Post-Zaydi Yemen: ‘Ulama Reactions to Zaydism’s Marginalization in the Republic of Yemen.”


More articles by:

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita