A year after the so-called Arab Spring blossomed in Tunisia and spread with enthusiastic Western support, developments in the region signal a protracted crisis that could threaten Arab-Israeli peace, world oil supplies and the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and other foreign ministers in New York yesterday to discuss how to tailor support for countries such as Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. Clinton called for international “norms” of free association, assembly and expression that are integral to democracy, yet a different dynamic is playing out across the Arab world.
Tunisia’s moderate Islamic government is muzzling the press. Bahrain has cracked down violently on demonstrators. Libya’s restive east, which holds much of the nation’s oil, is proposing self-rule. In Egypt, where a new Islamic-majority government is poised to take power by July 1, pro-democracy workers face trial and the new Parliament voted unanimously to expel Israel’s ambassador to Egypt. Across the region, economies are staggering and structures needed for political transition don’t even exist.
“This was never going to be an Arab Spring, but an Arab decade,” said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. “We’re at the beginning of a protracted crisis. None of these countries are really stable and Western diplomacy, led by the U.S., can do little but muddle.”
Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at CSIS, said that the absence of a strongman will make these new democracies less reliable allies for the U.S. “Democracies are often messy,” Alterman said in an interview. “Their policies change depending on the public mood.”
It’s a reality the foreign ministers in New York recognized. “We should not expect every time to have governments we agree with,” Hague said at the International Peace Institute yesterday in response to a question about his assessment of the Arab Spring.
The stakes are highest in Egypt, the strategically placed U.S. ally that has been the heart of moderate Sunni Islam and forged the cold Arab-Israeli peace, said analysts such as Nerguizian and Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February last year kept away investors and tourists, draining the nation’s foreign-exchange reserves. Egypt is seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to help carry the economy through the political transition.
Home to one-quarter of the Arab world’s population, Egypt will shape the future of political Islam, the region’s economic health and the future of Arab-Israeli relations through its transition, Danin said.
“Regardless of what happens, or the direction it takes, what happens in Egypt will reverberate widely throughout the region,” Danin said in an interview.
Egypt’s revolution is still in progress, said Marina Ottaway, head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group. Confrontation between the military regime and forces pushing for change, including the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, is coming soon, she said.
Ottaway cited symbolic parliamentary votes to expel the Israeli ambassador, end the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid and declare no-confidence in the current, presidentially appointed Cabinet.
“The forces that want change are saying ‘power now rests with us and we’re going to exercise it,’” Ottaway said in an interview. “What we are seeing right now is the real struggle to see whether there’s going to be a real revolution or not in Egypt. Keep in mind the Mubarak regime has not been undone.”
The meeting yesterday at the United Nations gathered foreign ministers from Russia, France, Germany, Portugal and Guatemala, and ambassadors from other Security Council countries. On the sidelines, Clinton discussed the Syria turmoil with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and participated in a session of the so-called Mideast Quartet to discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
As the Quartet -- the U.S., UN, EU and Russia -- announced no progress apart from a decision to meet again next month, Clinton acknowledged the limited ability the U.S. and others have to direct the political currents in the region.
“These revolutions are not ours,” she said at the foreign ministers’ meeting on the Arab Spring. “They are not by us, for us or against us.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the assembled officials the Mideast had reached a “sober moment.” He offered examples of progress -- a democratizing Tunisia, Libya discarding decades of dictatorship, Yemen’s newly elected president. Yet all three have decidedly mixed prospects, and the slide toward civil war in Syria hung over the talks.
Elliot Abrams, a national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, warned in the Washington Post on March 11 that Tunisian moves to censure the press by jailing TV network executives and newspaper publishers could lead to other curtailed freedoms under its Islamic government.
Yemen, where the U.S. carried out four air strikes against al-Qaeda-linked militants on March 11, according to the Associated Press, could continue to be a source of instability in the Gulf, Nerguizian said.
Eastern Libya, which accounts for about 66 percent of the country’s oil production, declared itself an autonomous region March 6, drawing condemnation from the ruling Transitional National Council and warnings from the Pretoria, South Africa- based Institute for Security Studies of a “high likelihood of the country disintegrating.”
Libya illustrates another challenge facing most Arab Spring countries, one that could undermine the democratic progress the U.S. wants to see. Once the regimes have been peeled away, there’s often little state structure underneath. Former leader Muammar Qaddafi ground out virtually all Libyan civil society during his 42-year hold on power.
“We have -- and I make no apology for repeating this again -- all the institutions of the state to rebuild from scratch, a huge challenge, but a truly exciting one,” Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said in Washington March 9.
Ban highlighted other worries, including President Bashar al-Assad’s violent repression in Syria, the crackdown by Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy on the restive Shiite majority and political uncertainty in Egypt, where he urged a “peaceful and early transfer of power to a civilian government.”
Signs don’t point to the pluralistic, democratic future that Clinton called for in New York.
Egyptian women have suffered setbacks, a possible harbinger of steps to come and of possible threats to religious minorities such as Coptic Christians. The dominant Islamic bloc in Congress called for replacing the National Council for Women with a council for families. And on March 11, a military court acquitted a doctor accused of forcing a female pro-democracy protester to undergo a virginity test, contradicting evidence that the test occurred.
“There’s been a notion that given a choice, most people want to be liberal and secular,” Alterman of CSIS said. “The justification for this has been a long line of people who want to come to the United States. But we haven’t seen the long list of people who don’t want to be liberal and secular and the long line of people who don’t want to come to the United States.”
“Maybe these people have found their voice as well,” Alterman said.
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