Friday, September 2, 2011


With the "Arab Spring" turning to the "Arab Fall" it's time to take another look.  While it is universally agreed that these social/political revolutions are of immense importance because of the changes they will bring to the region, the nature of those changes is not yet clear.  The Obama Administration has been properly supportive of these movements but its response has been inconsistent.  To a degree, this is also the correct posture since there should be no "one size fits all" foreign policy but consistency and execution are also important, both domestically and on the international stage. 

Interested parties will remember that the regional political tsunami began in Tunisia on January 11th, with the self-immolation of a frustrated fruit vendor whose business was taken from him by Tunisian authorities.  The uprising which followed resulted in the end of the regime of the country's long time dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.  The major issue with the mostly young protestors was rampant and chronic unemployment (@16%) and a general lack of economic opportunity even for college graduates, all made intolerable by a harsh and repressive dictatorship.

 It would seem that by comparison the Tunisian transition would be well placed to achieve liberal reforms and democratic political institutions.  The country has a small homogeneous population (10.5 million; 90% Sunni Muslim).  As a former French colony, most of the population is bi-lingual and 90% literate.  As a Mediterranean  coastal nation, Tunisia has significant ties to Southern Europe.  Still, reforms, especially economic in nature have moved slowly, if at all, and even in this semi-modern and relatively secular society, conditions which were largely imposed by the former authoritarian government, the future of modernization is not secure. 

As is commonly the case with the first exposure to an open electoral system, the political environment has been fractured into numerous special interests.  More than ninety new political parties have been registered for the creation of a constitutional assembly. This is important and instructive with respect to the other political revolts in more important regional states.  In Tunisia there exists an Islamist Party, Al Nahda which by some estimates is expected to win 20%-30% of the seats in the assembly in October.  The platform of Al Nahda is ominous.  It would establish an Islamic republic and ban normalization of relations with Israel.   It would change the  laws that forbid polygamy and which provide for judicial procedures for divorce in favor of Islamic law and indeed would define the status of women in terms of Sharia law.  Such changes would not come without a struggle but with the more liberal political forces fragmented into numerous parties, Al Nahda could find itself with a governing plurality or at least a dominant political position. 

Egypt is the largest and most important Arab state and the outcome of it’s revolution is critical to regional stability.  There is currently a struggle over the nature and electoral approval of a draft constitution.  Although a March referendum approved proposed constitutional amendments with 77.27% of the vote,  the election of a new parliament could be delayed until December or early 2012.  Egypt is currently ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which is anxious to deliver governance to a civilian authority.  The problem with a rapid election is that like Tunisia, the more liberal elements of the electorate are divided into dozens of new political parties.  That makes the two dominant parties, the supposedly reformed National Democratic Party of the former president Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The Muslim Brotherhood has gone through several public transformations since its founding as a strict, conservative Muslim movement in 1928.  Its true nature is still the subject of debate.  Egyptian military/political leaders outlawed it as a political party for most of its existence since Egyptian independence.  One of its theorists Sayyid Qutb who was prominent in the 1950s and 1960s specifically advocated “jihad” against Israel and the West.  Today the Muslim Brotherhood claims to support “reform, democracy, and the basic freedoms Americans are familiar with as First Amendment rights.  Since the Egyptian revolution they have established the Freedom and Justice Party to run candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections and the Chairman of the FJP has said that Islamist conservatives could win 40% of the parliamentary seats.

In spite of the moderation of the Brotherhood in recent times some of its positions remain troublesome.  The Secretary General of the FJP has said that “The real threat to the region is Israel. . .” and the party’s Chairman has demanded that the Camp David Accords, the peace treaty with Israel, be “revised”.  Recent popular demonstrations have demanded the establishment of an Islamic Republic and the termination of the peace treaty, and Egypt has recently experienced conflict between Islamists and Egypt’s Coptic Christians with two Christian churches being burned. The platform of the FJP states that the government and laws be based on Islamic law and that women and Christians are “unsuitable for the presidency.”

Included in the Egyptian Islamist spectrum are Salafist groups which by comparison make the Muslim Brotherhood look like liberals.  Salafism is sect which is believes Islam should be practiced by 7th and 8th century standards, that is, a strict interpretation of the Koran which rejects subsequent interpretations.  The Egyptian Salafists have a general disdain for the democratic political process, but they have a political party called Al Nour (The Light).  Their platform includes  an Islamic state guided by Sharia law and they have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being “too focused on politics at the expense of religion.”

President Obama made an early promise of $2 billion  in debt forgiveness and loan guarantees to Egypt without regard to what kind of government emerges from the upcoming parliamentary and presidential election.  The U.S. already provides about $2 billion in annual aid to Egypt with about one half going to Egypt’s military.  This aid should provide enormous leverage in relations with the new Egyptian government with respect to the continuation of the peace treaty with Israel and the pursuit of a moderate regional foreign policy.  A revocation of the peace treaty upon which the annual aid is based should result in an automatic cancellation of that aid and this should be made clear through back channels as soon as possible. 

While political unrest and uprisings have also occurred in Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen the current conflicts in Libya and Syria demand the most attention and political skills on the part of the Obama Administration.  President Obama was reluctant to intervene in the Libyan revolt against long time dictator Moammar Gaddafi.  This position was undoubtedly influenced by the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Administration's reluctance to enter “another conflict in a Muslim nation“.  Conservatives in the U.S. were split over the issue, with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham urging a forceful intervention on behalf of the insurgents, and more isolationist Republicans saying the U.S. had no vital interests in the struggle and therefore should stay out.  Democrats wanted to intervene but in a less vigorous manner than McCain and Graham.  Obama chose to "lead from behind", an oxymoronic statement which essentially meant logistic, intelligence and maritime support for a NATO effort originally tasked with "protecting civilians" from Gaddafi’s military and mercenaries. 

Supported by a NATO "lite" force of British and French attack aircraft (NATO has 28 member nations), the insurgents are currently on the verge of defeating Gaddafi forces and taking control of the country.  Democrats are portraying this as a validation of Obama's policy of indirect support.  Republican critics say a more robust U.S. role would have ended the conflict much earlier.  But "nothing succeeds like success" and the issue now turns to what kind of government will be installed and how soon?  How will the disparate interests in this nation which is "armed to the teeth" be reconciled? Libya has a history of being the source of Islamic jihadists, some with ties to al Qaida.  The Obama Administration should be cautious in its support for newly organized political forces in the post Gaddafi era. 

The situation in Syria is moving slowly with respect to regime change.  The Obama administration has indeed been cautious in its response to the conflict which is mostly characterized by peaceful protest and harsh military response on the part of the regime led by Bashar al-Assad.  U.S. and Western response has been a gradual escalation of economic sanctions against the Syrian leadership.
Assad is a true dictator and an ally of Iran.  He and his father before him have been devout enemies of Israel with whom they share a small but strategically important border.  However, Assad has not used the border dispute over the Golan Heights as an excuse for military conflict since it was occupied by Israel in 1967. 

Thus, as in Egypt and Libya, the Obama Administration and the governments of other Western nations must carefully manage their policies toward emerging political authorities with a view towards regional stability, national interests and on-going commitments to the security of Israel.  A policy of simply "reaching out" to Muslim governments which Obama pledged to do after his election in 2008 is simplistic and has so far not surprisingly been unproductive.

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