As the Arab Spring states continue down the long path towards democracy, it is important to reflect upon the previous year of the Arab Spring in order to better understand what actions will help to bring future stability to the region. Originally presented as part of a panel on U.S. foreign policy and the Arab Spring, this article sets forth ten observations about the Arab Spring from two public international law practitioners working with clients in several Arab Spring states, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. In particular, these observations seek to contribute to a more complete and balanced understanding of the Arab Spring, to inform the decisions of policymakers and analysts in the months ahead.
1. THE U.S. IS WILLING TO CONSIDER POLICY OPTIONS BEYOND "MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO"
For decades, the U.S. has sought to maintain the status quo in the Middle East, (1) particularly in the Arab Spring states, by relying on dictatorships to provide stability in the region. A review of U.S. foreign policy over the last year, however, reveals that in limited circumstances, the U.S. is willing to loosen its traditional attachment to the status quo in favor of democratic change. In nearly all of the Arab Spring states, the U.S. has moved away from long-standing relations--and in some cases, devoted allies--to support pro-democracy movements.
Although Egyptian activists criticized the U.S. government for its tardy condemnation of President Mubarak, in reality, it took only one week for the administration to call for a transition to a representative government. In so doing, President Obama noted that, "the status quo is not sustainable." (2) Mubarak ruled Egypt for three decades, during which time he forged close bonds with many in the administration. A U.S. reversal of policy--however tepid--to abandon support for a ruler described as a "friend" by officials, including Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney, represents a serious and surprising willingness to reevaluate the U.S.'s relationship with states that were once staunch allies. (3)
In Libya, historically tense relations with Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi likely made it easier for the U.S. to abandon its support for the dictatorship. And yet, despite Qadhafi's role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103--which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. citizens--as well as the regime's notorious intimidation, torture, imprisonment, and murder of Libyan citizens, relations between the U.S. and Libya had in fact begun to warm in recent years. This is largely attributable to the U.S.'s increased reliance on Qadhafi for cooperation in the post-9/11 War on Terror. Despite these improved relations, just fourteen days after the uprising began, President Obama called upon Qadhafi to step down. Another fourteen days later, the U.S. supported, and indeed largely drafted, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to end Qadhafi's rule. (4)
Notwithstanding the eventual willingness of the U.S. to break from the status quo in Libya and Egypt, its support of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements has been neither unconditional nor uniform. The response of the U.S. appears in some instances to depend on the likelihood that the ruler's ousting is inevitable. In Syria, for example, over five months passed with the death toll exceeding the tens of thousands before President Obama finally called upon President Bashar al-Assad to step down. (5) Since then, the U.S. has only matched this demand with sanctions and diplomatic slaps on the wrist. Additionally, the response by the U.S. to the violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, the strategic headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been notably muted. The U.S. has been critical of the minority-Sunni monarchy's arrest and detention of Shiite prodemocracy movement members, but such criticism has fallen short of support for a democratic transition.
Thus, while the U.S. is showing some willingness to consider options other than the status quo in Arab Spring states, it is hesitating to do so where change is perceived as too risky. As a result, and unfortunately for the Syrian and Bahraini pro-democracy movements, the U.S.'s risk analysis does not always fall in favor of taking actions necessary to support a democratic transition. In making this observation, it is also important to remember that the U.S.'s trend towards loosening its embrace on the status quo is not irreversible. Given unfortunate post-conflict developments in Egypt and Libya, it may only be a matter of time before the U.S. reverts to its traditional approach of relying on undemocratic leaders in the name of stability. Indeed, this may be a part of the administration's current calculation on Syria. Nonetheless, the U.S.'s actions in some of the Arab Spring states demonstrates a recognition of the value gained in supporting democratic movements in lieu of maintaining the status quo.
2. THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IS ALIVE AND WELL
The Muslim Brotherhood has emerged from the Arab Spring as a winner. Prior to the Arab Spring, Arab dictators often attempted to suppress the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, which they viewed as a source of political opposition. Despite this, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a leader in the post-conflict periods and in some cases, during the initial movements toward democratic transition.
Although youth activists sparked the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the principle opposition party and will likely be successor to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ("SCAF") in post-Mubarak Egypt. With organizational structures and fundraising plans already in place, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party secured the largest number of parliamentary seats--more than forty-seven percent--in the state's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. (6) The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is also gaining traction since the revolution ended. Though smaller than its Egyptian counterpart and with less historical opportunity to organize, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya formed its first political party--the Justice and Construction Party--in November 2011. (7) The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as a major player too. It has the highest percentage of members in the opposition party Syrian National Council ("SNC"), and members of the Muslim Brotherhood serve on some of the most influential committees within the SNC. (8) In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, which was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, (9) won forty-one percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and has formed a government with two center-left secular parties. (10)
What does the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major player mean for the future of the Arab Spring states? It is difficult to know whether the Muslim Brotherhood's rise is a result of actual support for its ideology, empathy for the group as representative of the oppressed masses, or respect for an entity capable of delivering during a time of …