Obama and the Group of 8 have pledged tens of millions of dollars in support of the Arab Spring. The aid and cooperation is supposedly conditional on positive steps towards reform, despite Washington’s track record on such things. The communiqué contained all the necessary pomposity about freedom, democracy, and common values, but this plan is plagued by omens of imperial policy.
The transition from tyranny to freedom is progressing with some promise, but it is by no means assured. It is delicate. Obama’s re-branding of America’s approach towards the region has yet to prove any different from the system of imperial control traditionally imposed on the region and could potentially disrupt or reverse the progress that’s been made.
Egypt is on the road to real change. Military checkpoints throughout the country have been dismantled, parliamentary elections are set to take place in September, and a constitution is to be drafted promptly thereafter. Mubarak and his sons will be tried for killing over 800 people and injuring thousands more during the protests, a development demanded by the people since before Mubarak’s ouster.
But, as protesters’ banners read Friday in Tahrir Square, “the Egyptian revolution is not over.” Scattered instances of sectarian violence and a struggling economy threaten stability, a crime wave unsettles the country’s security, and the military rulers are still directing the proceedings of the democratic transition. Some have accused the military and supreme council of collaborating with remaining elements of the Mubarak regime, upholding a system special treatment to elites, and continuing to treat protestors harshly.
Much about Egypt’s transition to democracy is uncertain at this early stage, and U.S. diplomatic collaboration has some potential to mimic the selection of political leaders by external forces as happened with Omar Suleiman just after Mubarak stepped down. Economic integration and new influxes of aid may have ominous outcomes as well, with taxpayer money finding its way into dark corners as has happened in decades passed. Ultimately, U.S. involvement in Egypt’s progress is about ensuring that it goes the way national security planners in Washington prefer, and this could tarnish the revolution forever.
Tunisia is similarly teetering in its democratic adolescence. Parliamentary elections are planned for July and “the new authorities have taken a number of steps towards ensuring accountability and long-term reforms,” UN Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez said. But practices of torture and abuse have continued under the interim government, according to Tunisian rights activist Radhia Nasraoui. Economic challenges and a troubling refugee problem also undermine the transition.
In countries not yet successful in overthrowing their governments, U.S. policy has remained essentially unchanged. Yemen’s dictatorial President Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to step down from power and continues to brutally crack down on protestors. In Bahrain, the democracy movement continues to be oppressed and subdued by authoritarian policies. Pro-democracy demonstrators in Oman are being tried on charges of rioting and vandalism, while the regime refuses to reform its despotic government. All these countries, however, remain steadfastly supported by Obama.
The wave of revolutions still sweeping the Middle East presented an opportunity to truly change U.S. policy from one of unrelenting imposition to one of peaceful non-intervention in support of the notion that those formally under the boot of U.S.-supported regimes ought to be given a chance at self-actualization. But stepping back and allowing people to determine their own futures was apparently out of the question. Obama is giving this spontaneous upheaval half way across the world the kind of attention and administration that might be warranted if it were happening in Boston, Massachusetts. But the world is his dominion. Everywhere is his backyard. Only naiveté of the sort that got him elected could lead one to think he would let this develop without attempting to have it go his way.