By Levent Baştürk
Is there a relationship between the Greater Middle Eastern Partnership initiative and the Arab Spring?
Is the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ a product of the ‘democracy agenda’ initiated by the Bush Administration and followed during the Obama era? These are the questions that are frequently being asked by some sectors nowadays.
ARAB SPRING: A MANIFESTATION OF THE PUBLIC ANGER AGAINST STATUS QUO
There is no doubt that the phenomenon which many observers refer to as the “Arab Spring” is a spontaneous manifestation of the public anger in the Arab World. What was common in most of the Arab countries was that the old order— associated with authoritarianism, political repression, police brutality, nepotism, economic mismanagement, unemployment and poverty— was no longer sustainable, and the events in Tunisia triggered a series of revolts in other countries as well. Like all great social upheavals, the Arab uprising was long in the making, and born of many intertwined causes. However, this manifestation took different forms due to the different experiences in different countries. Moreover, the social and political actors who have played roles in these experiences also have different characteristics from one country to another. So far, the rulers have changed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, but the path each country took after the leadership change has been different because of their particular characteristics.
It’s impossible to deny the role played by the US (and other countries) in the development of events during the uprising and on its outcome, but seeing a positive correlation between the two is misleading. In fact, recent polls conducted in Arab countries indicate that the popularity of the US among Arab masses is declining after the Arab uprising. A new survey conducted by the Doha Center reveals that two third of the Arab population sees the US and Israel as more threatening than Iran, as mentioned by Marwan Bıshara of Al Jazeera English in one of his recent articles. This is because the Arab uprising is also a manifestation of the anger against the regional status quo imposed by the international system upon the Arab masses, and symbolized by the Camp David order, which is patronized by the US to guarantee Israel’s security and to provide support to oil-rich Gulf countries in order to maintain the safe flow of oil to the Western countries and Japan.
HOW THE AMERICANS VIEW THEIR ROLE IN THE ARAB SPRING?
Although the Arab uprising was also a protest against the regional order imposed by Washington and its Western allies, we still see some comments crediting the US for the Arab uprising, casting the US as a factor inspiring, supporting, and fighting for the success of the Arab revolutions.The Greater Middle Eastern Partnership initiative or “ democracy agenda” of the George W Bush era, according to some commentators and Bush era officials, planted the seeds of change after Bush made the cause of democracy in the ME a US national security priority. Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney recently mentioned that the Arab Spring was the outcome of the so-called liberation and democratization of Iraq, and of other policies followed by the Bush administration. Even neo-conservative columnists such as Charles Krauthammer said that Bush, Blair and a band of neo-cons paved the way for the Arab spring by challenging the conventional wisdom about Arab exceptionalism in terms of the absence of democracy in the region. famous liberal commentator Fareed Zakaria and the Economist magazine also joined those who praised Bush and his team for their contribution to the Arab revolutions.
INCONSISTENT US PRACTICES REGARDING DEMOCRATIZATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
However, the facts on the ground deny all these claims about the relationship between the democracy agenda of the Bush administration and the Arab uprisings. After the Egyptian elections of 2005,which ended up with the strong presence of independent members of the parliament belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood movement despite the fact that the movement only had very limited number of candidates in the elections, and the Palestinian elections of 2006, which ended up with the victory of Hamas, Bush administration became less enthusiastic about the democracy agenda. Instead of promoting free elections, priority was placed on the encouragement of free trade and economic liberalization as a means of creating the middle class as the vanguard of true democracy.
The very same Bush who allegedly tried to promote democracy praised Bin Ali of Tunisia during the latter’s White House visit in 2004 due to Bin Ali’s so-called reforms for press freedom, and for holding free and competitive elections. During the Bush years, the leader of Tunisia’s Anahuac Party, Rashid Ghannouchi,was not granted a visa to come to the US to deliver speeches at the events to which he was invited. Adding the consequences of the Bush administration’s War on Terror policies in the Muslim world into this picture does not really support the idea that the Bush era positively contributed to the Arab uprising.
Although there is a general conviction that the Obama administration abandoned the Bush era policies, the continuity between the two eras is more remarkable than the discontinuity. Obama called Mubarak of Egypt a reliable ally and praised the Saudi king for his wisdom and graciousness. The US expanded the war in Afghanistan War to Pakistanand made Yemen and Somaliaundeclared war zones with its frequent and regular attacks on many targets in these countries.
Although the Obama administration,while not taking the lead, was fast in playing a role in the formation of an alliance for the support of the rebels in Libya against Ghaddafi, it was not really very enthusiastic about supporting the earlier Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In both countries, the Obama administration declared its “neutrality” between the people and the ruthless oppressors, and it took a month before it changed its position regarding Tunisia.
By looking at the Wikileaks documents which clearly indicate the US administration’s frustration with the Bin All regime in Tunisia, some may argue that theUS wanted to get rid of Bin Ali. Adding the supportive statements from various US politicians, such as John McCain and Joe Lieberman who are known with their past warmongering attitudes, the US administration’s recent positive attitude toward the new regime in Tunisia, and the generally optimistic comments made by many liberal and conservative opinion makers in the US about the new Tunisia, they may also conclude that there is a positive correlation between the American democracy promotion policies and the new conditions in Tunisia as well as in Egypt.The support provided to the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi and the pressures on the Assad regime in Syria may also be used to strenghten their case.
AMERICAN PRAGMATISM IS AT PLAY VIS-À-VIS THE ARAB SPRING
However, all these cases show that the US, instead of reacting negatively to the people’s demands in the region, is following a pragmatic approach and is acting in accordance with the new conditions in order to not lose influence in the region where its popularity continues to decline in the eyes of the people. The US and its allies are using a carrot and stick method towards new developments, instead of trying to repress them. In other words, the US is trying to influence, direct and manipulate the developments and events in a way that won’t threaten its vital interests in the region. According to this new approach, the US is seeking a reconciliation and compromise with the İslamist movements which won, or most likely will win, the free elections in each country. On the other side, Hillary Clinton doesn’t neglect adding that “democracies have a right to protect themselves”. In other words, Clinton reminds that the US may tolerate the abortion of the democratization process if the Islamic movements/parties ever constitute a threat tothe interests of the USor the still powerful segments of the old regime consented to accommodating their interests with the US policies.
THE recent NGO raids in Egypt attracted the attention to foreign funded organizations in the Arab countries which played a role in the Arab uprising. It’s a fact that some organizations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and other countries have accepted training and funding from some American organizations or institutions, such as the international Republican Institute, the national Democratic institute, Freedom House, National Endowment for Democracy and etc. Those who are critical of the U.S.refer to this situation as evidence that the so-called Arab spring was / is engineered by the U.S.
Those who favor the U.S. involvement in the process use this as evidence of the US’s positive role in the democratization of the region.
Indeed this is not a new phenomenon that we are observing for the first time within the context of the Arab uprisings. This has been ongoing for a long time, and goes back to the early 1990s in Egypt, Tunisia and other places. Although the US allies in the ME didn’t create many problems for the US in terms of the American security and strategic interests in the region, they were very jealous of their own backyards and didn’t allow the US to use much leverage inside their countries. Wikileaks documents regarding Tunisia clearly show the frustration of the US diplomats with the regime with respect to the American efforts to engage the Tunisian society and businessmen. InEgypt, well-known political scientist Saad Eddin Ibrahim was accused of betraying the national interest of Egypt for accepting money from US-based organizations for the think tank institution which he had established in the late 1990s. Despite pressures from the US, this well-known academician was sentenced to two years of prison for defaming Egypt and tortured during his captivity. Likewise, Ayman Nour— who ran against Hosni Mubarak in the presidential elections in 2005— was imprisoned after the elections until 2009 despite the U.S.’s objections.
It’s true that American experts gave seminars and workshops to the youth and to human rights activists from various Arab countries, in addition to the financial support provided to the NGOs. But these activities and funds were limited in scope and duration. If training 5000 people and spending a few million dollars were really enough to mobilize the masses, and could really topple the governments, the US would easily control the course of events all over the world without running the risk of a crisis of hegemony.
Both those who attribute a positive role to the US’s financial support to the NGOs and those who see the US strength in changing the course of events via these funds agree on the presence of an invisible western hand in everything happening in the Middle East. The only thing they cannot see is the fact that the people of the region cannot be actors in the events changing their lives and political and social landscapes.
ARE THE ROLES OF WIKILEAKS AND SOCIAL MEDIA CRUCIAL IN THE ARAB UPRISING?
The logic which looks for a positive correlation between the US democracy promotion policy and practices and the Arab uprising also exaggerates the effect of the Wikileaks documents on the Arab uprising.Wikileaks have provided information a great deal of information on the corruption of the former Tunisian ruling family, the Saudi’s pressures on the US to bomb Iran, Ghaddafı’s sons’ use of the state’s financial and security resources for their personal interests, and Saleh’s willingness to accept all the US operations ended up killing Al Qaeda suspects, and sometimes civilians, as the operations of the Yemen armed forces It’s obvious that these reveleations would increase the people’s anger because of their humiliating nature. It’s a kind of another form of assault on the people’s dignity as a result of their rulers’ abuses of their authority. But they are not something that the people in the Arab world would not expect them from their rulers or their family members.
The role of social media and the internet as a medium of exchange in the global village was possibly more important than what the Wikileaks documents have revealed. First of all, social media have opened new avenues to the youth in these countries. They have become familiar with other countries, other people’s experiences, and ideas in other parts of the world. Besides, social media have become a tool for the exchange of ideas without any or significant degree of government intervention. Moreover, it has become a means of communication in their social activism. This has opened the way for using social media as a tool for organizing demonstrations and protests. During the presence of the heavy state control on the news and the opinions on TV and in printed media, social media have also become a source for expressing ideas while avoiding the breath and heavy hand of the state. data— only 20 percent of the population has access to the internet and only 5 percent are Facebook The usefulness of the social media in the Arab uprising cannot be ignored, but it should not be forgotten that it was merely a tool for the activists and opposition. A realistic assessment of the role of social media requires us to look at the statistics. For instance, in Egypt— in accordance with 2009 data, only 20 percent of the population has an access to internet and only 5 percent are Facebook users.. In short, the story of uprising in Tunisia, Egypt and other uprisings in the region isn’t one of social media victory or revolution.
ANCIENT REGIME / UNSUSTAINABLE ARAB STATUS QUO
If we adopt the most commonly used definitions of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, most of the Middle Eastern states can be qualified in the category of the authoritarian state, because most of them don’t meet the criteria for totalitarianism, such as charismatic leadership, official ideology, and the lack of any kind of pluralism.
Compared to totalitarian systems, authoritarian systems may also leave a larger sphere for private life, lack a guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the whole population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise their power within relatively predictable limits.
“The difference could be summarized as follows:
Authoritarian state: Mind your own business, or we'll shoot you.
Totalitarian state: "Do what we say, or we'll shoot you".
Ghaddafı’s Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran are closer to totalitarianism than Mubarak’s Egypt, but in terms of the degree of the arbitrary use of the state security forces’ power, there may not be much difference. On the other side, Iran performs better than Mubarak’s Egypt in fair elections and political participation. Rather than being concerned what these termsreally imply in order to understand the Arab Ancient Regime, it’s better to judge these countries in terms of their treatment of their people.
In terms of their treatment of their populations, we observe these problems in almost all of them:
1- Torture and maltreatment in police stations, detention centers and prisons
2- Arbitrariness of the security forces in dealing with the citizens
3- Absence of the rule of law
4- Restrictions on the freedom of expression
5- Restrictions on the freedom of association
6- Monitoringandterrorizingpoliticalopposition and absence or lack of pluralism
7- State’s monopoly over the legitimate form of political, social and religious discourse
8 - Repeated violations of human rights
9- Poverty and / high levels of corruption
Only few of the countries rank better than the others in one or two of the items above, such as the relatively better economic condition of some oil-rich countries. Or a few of them allow more political participation than the others, such as Jordan and Morocco. Most of these problems, however, are structural in these countries, and this creates an environment of political repression and economic deprivation. In an environment where the population is mostly young, educated and unemployed, this situation creates a volatile situation. In almost every Arab country, more than half of the population is under 30 years old while a quarter of the population is between 15 and 29. Unemployment in 2010 is around 25 percent in many countries, reaching 45 percent in Algeria and Iraq. 4 out of 5 among the unemployed in Egypt are under 30. Even unemployment amonguniversity graduates has risen sharply. For example, in Tunisia 18.4 percent of university graduates were unemployed in 2007. 44 percent of Egyptians and 50 percent of Yemenis are living near or under the poverty line.
In conclusion, the Arab Ancient Regime is in a deep crisis. What we have witnessed in 2011 might have indeed happened at any time over the past quarter century. Economic, social, political, judicial, and diplomatic problems all contributed to the furious sense of grievance across the Arab world.