Dances on quick sands: US and the Arab Spring (1 of 7)

(This was first published in Ahram Online on 22 November 2013)
I spent a few months this year studying how the US foreign policy machine has been responding to the avalanche of developments in the Middle East since December 2010 when the ostensibly stable region erupted into a turmoil that brought its peoples to the streets in an upheaval that has not ended yet. Through written material, documents and interviews in Washington DC and New York, these articles are an attempt to piece together how the US foreign policy was formulated and why in this period.

Cairo’s mass media is full of experts who are screaming in talk shows or pontificating in newspaper columns about the US support for the Muslim Brotherhood or conspiracy against the same movement to bring it down. This cacophony can border on the absurd with allegations about President Obama’s brother membership of the Muslim Brotherhood International or exposing to the ‘naïve’ among us the details of how the US masterminded the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that deposed Mubarak through several civil society organizations and training workshops in Eastern Europe. This endless stream of fabrications quoting so-called “sovereign sources”, which seems to be a veiled reference to security or intelligence sources in the Egyptian parlance, makes one concerned – not about the fate of a country beset by so many conspiracies but about the competence of these sources or the journalists who are quoting them.

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More than 20 years after the cascading collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which Samuel Huntington dubbed it ‘the third democratization wave’, the Middle East massive political protests over the past three years toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and led Syria into an increasingly sectarianized armed conflict. This fourth wave of democratization, which people are now less euphoric about calling it the ‘Arab Spring’, posed a major challenge to the US foreign policy at a time Washington was looking forward to extricating itself from the 10-year military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and pivoting itself more towards east Asia.

The evolution of the popular uprisings in these corrupt, authoritarian Arab republics followed various trajectories. In Tunisia and Egypt, massive largely peaceful demonstration removed the aging tyrants and their close circles from their palaces with the explicit support of the armed forces in January and February 2011. Predominantly Islamist political factions became the ruling forces in these two countries in a shaky alliance with the remnants of the old regime, primarily the security forces, especially in Egypt, and the bureaucracy. The alliance in Egypt foundered under public pressure and protests by mid 2013 bringing the country into an unprecedented polarization and presenting a serious challenge to US foreign policy. In Libya, the opposition took up arms as the Libyan armed forces started to advance against their areas of concentration in March 2011. It was the intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that tipped the balance and prevented what many feared could become a bloody massacre in Benghazi, the rebels’ stronghold, and a continuation in power of a Gaddafi who would become very vengeful. It took a few months to fully defeat the megalomaniac Gaddafi and his security forces. Few months later the celebrations that brought senior European and American politicians to Libya, gave place to a somber mood as armed militias spread their influence and foreign diplomats were targeted including the murder of the US ambassador in September 2012. In Yemen, continuous public demonstrations, aided by pressure from Gulf countries with US support led to slow and torturous negotiations which eased the long serving dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh from an office he occupied for 34 years. In Syria, what started as a peaceful popular protest in March 2011 metamorphosed over many months into a murderous sectarianized civil war with over 120,000 people killed so far and several millions displaced. The Shiite uprising in Bahrain, the only monarchy to be markedly touched by the Arab Spring, was quickly suppressed with military support from neighboring Gulf countries.

The US reaction to the political upheavals in these countries varied widely. The developments in Tunisia were so fast that the US could not formulate any concrete policy options before President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14th January, 2011. US officials sent mixed messages over Egypt during 18 days of civil disobedience (25th January till 11th February, 2011) until former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down under the pressure of the people and his own military helped ease him out. Libya’s uprising took a few months and posed a more serious threat to European allies due to its oil wealth and as a conduit for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. The US joined NATO in a military intervention, sanctioned by the UN Security Council. It helped the armed opposition depose the mercurial Gaddafi and his regime by force. In Yemen, the US supported a much slower and more calculated regime change approach. The US policy regarding the Syrian upheaval has been largely limited to humanitarian aid, diplomatic sanctions and public diplomacy, feeling content to have finally stripped the regime of its chemical arsenal in exchange for not launching a massive US aerial attack. The US basically left the Assad regime to continue its murderous confrontations with the weakened secular opposition as well as the Jihadis who now flock to Syria. Few and far in-between, public statements criticizing human rights abuses constituted the US reaction to what unfolded in Bahrain in a way reminiscent of how Washington dealt with all these authoritarian regimes in the past few decades.  

The Arab Spring swept through a region of strategic significance to the US and threatened long-stated US foreign policy interests. It pitted US strategic interests against values and principles it publicly preaches as one regime after the other threatened to or actually resorted to harsh repressive measures and the number of casualties increased daily in events that were broadcast live almost 24 hours a day.

The US interests and values crisscrossed in these countries but the latter were often subservient to the former.

Egypt and Syria neighbor Israel, the US closest ally in the region. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has a peace treaty with Israel while Damascus is technically still in a state of war with Tel Aviv. Syria is the only remaining capital in the region where Iran has unchallenged influence over the regime (even more than in Baghdad and Beirut where Tehran has a lot of friends). Yemen is a central theatre in the war on terror and chaos there could destabilize parts of Saudi Arabia, the global energy giant. Libya, has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. At least 72% of its oil production (1.4 million barrels a day) goes to Europe. The repeated threats by Gaddafi to exterminate his opponents deeply worried the US and many other countries. Bahrain is the host of the US fifth fleet and ceding more power to the disenfranchised Shiite could strengthen Iran’s regional position. These were indeed challenging considerations to any policy maker.

Traditionally, the US foreign policy in the region has been explained by resorting to two main factors, arguably unchanged since the second world war. These are ensuring 1) a stable flow of energy resources from giant gulf producers, and; 2) Israel’s security. If these are truly the most important determinants of US foreign policy in the region, then using them as explanatory principles one should be able to understand the variance in US foreign policy in the region in 2011. Other considerations such as democratization, respect for human rights, the responsibility to protect, US inter-agency bureaucratic politics, Iranian threats, and the war on terror would then be secondary or derivative. 

But studying the US policy formulation process and substance in 2011 shows that though Israel’s security and the unimpeded flow of oil were indeed the dominant factors, the US foreign policy in the Middle East cannot be fully understood without resorting to these so-called secondary considerations, as well as certain neo-orientalist positions embraced by the US on democratic change in the region. Exposing this intricate web of motivations and drivers will be the focus of the coming articles.

*Khaled Mansour is an Egyptian writer who worked for over 20 years in the USA, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa both as a journalist and as a United Nations official. He now lives and works in Cairo.

Author: خالد منصور

Writer, Egyptian, defender and critic of human rights, humanitarian worker and analyst, former UN official in conflict countries including HQ in NYC, communication expert (and knows about a couple other issues including miscommunication and propaganda!)

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