Tunisia and the U.S. democracy flip-flop in the Arab world
‘History is written by the victors’. This truism has been complicated in an age of tremendous news transparency and has highlighted just how far behind the curve the U.S. government remains in understanding the Middle East. Tunisia and the recent uprising that has overthrown Ben Ali after a 20 year rule supported by France and ...
‘History is written by the victors’. This truism has been complicated in an age of tremendous news transparency and has highlighted just how far behind the curve the U.S. government remains in understanding the Middle East. Tunisia and the recent uprising that has overthrown Ben Ali after a 20 year rule supported by France and the U.S. is a sign of how important it is for the U.S. to have a clear-eyed of the Middle East in the future.
One of the fundamental complaints against successive US administrations by Arabs has always been Washington’s support for autocratic regimes. President Obama described the ailing Egyptian ruler, Hosni Mubarak, as a wise man — although he ruled the largest Arab population for almost 30 years with a bare minimum of political freedom. The US always betted on the regimes for stability. The Bush administration parted with this view when former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, gave her famous speech at the American University in Cairo in June, 2005 when she said “for 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East. And we achieved neither.” This, however didn’t translate to any substantial change in policy and the three billion US dollars given to Egypt annually by the United States kept on coming.
The Obama administration has been lukewarm when it comes to demands of political freedom and reform elsewhere in the Arab world, from Saudi Arabia to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This is most evident in Tunisia where the administration was caught by surprise in the early weeks of the uprising. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied it was an internal matter, “so we not taking sides, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution”, she said an in interview with an Arabic TV. This was reversed by President Obama’s statement a few days later: “The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold.” The French government followed a similar flip flop with the French Foreign Minister offering security assistance to Ben Ali only to ultimately deny him safe haven in France.
Flip flops are common in politics, but the speed of them in this modern communication age highlights the hypocrisy of government policies more than showing them to be reasoned corrections. Little has been written yet about the long term impact to U.S. policy in the region as Arabs view this intifada as the first real successful example (still in process) of bringing accountability to U.S.-backed Arab regimes.
Meanwhile, Arab leaders immediately began to promote the threat of so called ‘Islamic extremism’ as the only alternative to their repressive role. But it isn’t — except to the apologies of Arab autocracy. “The game is over”, read one of the banners in the street of the capital, but it wasn’t a zero sum game.
But replacing Arab dictators should not be synonymous with replacing them with Muslim extremists. The opposition in Tunis is a consummate mix of secular parties, students, trade unions, women organizations and yes, Islamists. And the mass protest in the streets showed another rare scene in the Arab world: women without scarves or hijabs demonstrating next to their husbands and brothers. A Che Guevara poster replaced that of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah (currently the most popular Arab leader in the Arab world), and the Tunisian red flag replaced green banners of Islam. Tunisia has a very highly educated and secular leaning population and therefore their case might not replicate in the rest of the Arab world. However, the seeds of change are clearly being sewn in Arab soils. It’s premature to predict where it will go but we might see a few Prague springs coming soon to a location near you in the Middle East.
Over eight decades ago, the renowned Arab Poet Abu Al Qasim Alshabi wrote:” If people wanted freedom, destiny will be on their side, the dark night will come to an end and the chain will be broken”. He happened to be a Tunisian and little did he know that it would start in his own country. The jasmine will be added to the velvet, rose and orange revolutions that toppled the most ruthless of dictators; this time it’s happening in the Arab world.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters is a foreign correspondent based in Washington DC
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