Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trying To Make Sense Of The Arab Spring

In Egypt, pro-democracy protests led to the forced resignation of the president, who now faces criminal charges as the Army leads an interim government. In Syria, the president had long promised reforms but when they did not come brutally cracked down on demonstrators when they took to the streets.

From the monolithic American view, Egypt and Syria would not appear to be especially different countries, although the outcomes of efforts to embrace democracy have been very much so. Meanwhile, pro-democracy movements have encountered varying degrees of success in Tunisia and Yemen and abject failure in Bahrain, where Saudi security forces were part of the crackdown, as well as in Algeria.

In trying to make sense of all of this, I conclude that:

* The big story is the feeling of empowerment that has swept the region. Arabs of all backgrounds now demand to be heard. This is primarily because of Al-Jazeera and social media and little to do with Obama or Bush foreign policies.

* The dramatic three-week uprising in Egypt that culminated with the fall of Hosni Mubarak is, taking the most optimistic point of view, only the end of the beginning. The same applies to other countries where there have been successes.

* If Egypt was a dress rehearsal for the appropriate U.S. role in promoting the Arab Spring, Libya is the litmus test. The Obama administration understands that American credibility and its intentions, so often malevolent in the past, are on the line and it had no choice but to back and be a big part of NATO involvement.

* The Arab Spring is post-Islamist insofar that demonstrators less identify with Islam than with getting a voice, although that does not mean that the deeply sectarian Muslim Brotherhood won't play a role in Egypt's future or that the Libyan rebels aren't aligned with Al Qaeda.

* The need for a vigorous American public diplomacy has never been greater, but many of the very Republicans who excoriate the White House and State Department for its diplomacy want to dramatically slash funding for such efforts.

The sense of stalemate is palpable in much of the region, which makes it even more important that there be a clear U.S. policy and that it be hewed to for the long-haul. That, of course, has to include Israel, Palestine and Iran.

* As litmus tests go, Libya is a biggie but Israel may be bigger still because of its outsized influence in Washington and the intractability of the Palestinian "problem."

In fact, the key to the long-term success of the Arab Spring arguably rests with the only non-Arab country in the region.

Israel's reaction of shock and alarm over Mubarak's ouster was deeply disheartening, although not surprising. After all, no other nation in the region has a peace treaty with Egypt and the Egyptian president had supported Israel's inhumane Gaza policy.

Yet once again Israel squandered the moral high ground by preferring a tyrant to a democracy because it serves its bellicose self interests. Its other self interests, of course, have included settlement building in the Occupied Territories, the Gaza blockade, using weapons banned by treaties that it refuses to be a signatory to, an out-of-all-proportion commando raid on an aid flotilla . . . oh, and sandbagging Vice President Biden.

I would never equate Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Syria President Assad. I would defend Israel's right to exist with my own blood. But it is long past time that the U.S. give Israel a dose of strong medicine, and that may speak louder regarding the U.S.'s regional intentions -- and that it is foursquare behind the Arab Spring no matter where it may try to blossom -- than any speechifying about the joys of democracy.
Photo by By Tara Todras-Whitehill/The Associated Press

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