International Affairs Forum:
What are your thoughts on U.S. policy responses to the Arab Spring?
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer:
It’s actually hard to make one general statement about how the U.S. did with the Arab Spring or uprising so far because their position has varied greatly. For example, there was complete endorsement of the regime in Bahrain in spite of all of what they have done regarding human rights violations. Also, they basically watched the military intervention of the Gulf Council marching in with the request of Bahrain to aid them in repressing the protest movement. On the other hand, in Libya, the U.S. acted much quicker and actually committed resources shortly after the start of the Libyan revolt. So it’s difficult to just look at U.S. policy through one characterization regarding how they dealt with the Arab Spring.
In addition, the U.S., to some extent, took a ‘wait and see’ position in some cases. In Egypt, the U.S. policy waited too long to support the revolution and protest movement. I think they initially thought that the Mubarak regime was going to survive the protest and the aftershocks, and the regime would prevail. But obviously that did not happen. The fact that the U.S. administration waited too long before making the commitment to stand with the revolutionary groups sent a disappointing message to the Arab world, in particular to the protest movements. But I think the U.S. administration have learned from the experience for possible future events like this.
A similar story has taken place with Syria where the U.S. foreign policy decision waited too long and is still waiting to make aconcrete diplomatic move in confronting Assad’s repressive regime. Only recently have they come out with a very clear message that the regime needs to change or has to respond differently to the demands of the opposition.
Overall, it is clear that the US foreign policy response to the Arab spring was caught between the desire to support the continuation of the existing regime (with some basic reforms) and the pressure of the Arab masses to fully replace the paradigm of dictators.
The Arab Spring has transformed the old familiar landscape of the Middle East into a new and uncharted territory for the United States. Yet engaging in the region remains an imperative. How should the U.S. navigate in the post-Arab Spring waters? What should it do? What should it avoid?
In late December of last year, the Egyptian military council issued an order to raid 17 offices of foreign, non-governmental organizations in Egypt. These are organizations that support democracy, citizenship, and freedom of speech, among them, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, etc. When the raids occurred, the foreign policy arm of the United States responded quickly. The President, Hillary Clinton- Secretary of State, as well as other envoys confronted the Egyptian military council. This is an example of what the U.S. should be doing in the future in dealing with issues related to Arab revolutions or protests. They should make it clear whether they are in support of the movement as well as making it clear there will be no confusion or second thoughts regarding their position of supporting non-government organizations that stand for democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, diversity, and non-violence. That message needs to be made every time the U.S. has a chance to convey that to Arab governments or newly transitioning governments.
The second point, which I think is a positive thing in terms of future dealings, is that the U.S. has realized so far that, despite the fact that a number of Arab regimes have collapsed, the replacing forces have Islamic ideology and politics and that there is no way around engaging with these rising forces. This means dealing with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, conservative jihadist groups in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. So the old policy of the U.S. staying away or refusing to engage with these forces is already obsolete. The U.S. has to put together a more forthcoming way to engage with these political forces that have wide support from the Arab public and the Arab community, regardless of agreements or disagreements with their ideologies.
I am sure that some of their ideologies are not in line with what the U.S. wants to see as foreign policy. But the point here is that there is a need to continue and positively engage and constructively connect with these political forces and not to make the same mistake that we did with Iran, Hamas, and even the Taliban ( disconnecting and not engaging with their religious and political leaders).
There is also a need for the U.S. to reevaluate how much military aid and equipment is injected in the region through their support to the existing regimes, as they have done in the past. Instead, they should look at increasing the USAID budget and increasing social development and economic development aid to many of the Arab communities who are in need of such aid. For example, in 2010 Egypt received $1.3 billion in military aid while only receiving $250 million in economic development aid. That formula needs to be reevaluated. U.S. foreign policy can gain a far more positive reputation, image, and effectiveness if they invest more in economic and social development that benefit the community and the people rather than investing more money in protecting existing monarchical regimes, as well as transitioning Islamic governments in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. I think it’s better for us in USA to be recognized not as a weapons and military aid supplier , but as a provider of economic and social development support.
One more point has to do with the nature of the masses that support the Arab Spring, the majority of which are youth. U.S. policy has to focus greater attention and engagement to the needs of the youth and the younger generation in the Arab world that are certainly more sophisticated, more connected, and able to mobilize and organize, than the previous generation. The U.S. needs to adjust its policy not to deal with the Arab societies through the elders and traditional leadership, but to find different mechanisms to access and connect with the Arab community and Arab youth. That’s something that I think they need to examine, or reexamine, in light of what has happened in the Arab Spring.
Last, the U.S. needs to reevaluate its policy regarding Palestine and Israel, because during this transitional period right now, everybody is waiting to see how the post-Arab Spring will affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly the new regime in Egypt that is in power will, to some extent, respect the existing treaties between Israel and Egypt. However it isn’t clear if after the transition whether there will be some movement to reevaluate the relationship. I think it’s crucial for the U.S. to push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that meets the minimal current demands of the Palestinian and Arab countries before it is too late, because these governments in transition may take a new policy that’s not very constructive toward peace between Israel and Palestine. Such newly created regimes, led by Islamic movements, can easily turn their back on the status quo that existed for decades between Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. In a few years, they too, can easily manipulate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to serve their failing internal domestic agenda. I think it’s important for American foreign policy to address the issue of Palestine as soon as possible in order to prevent its manipulation in this transitional period in the Arab world.
Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer is a professor at the American University School of International Service and Director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute
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