How and Why the West Reacted to the Arab Spring: An Arab Perspective

By Metawe, Mohamed | Insight Turkey, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

How and Why the West Reacted to the Arab Spring: An Arab Perspective


Metawe, Mohamed, Insight Turkey


For nearly six decades, both the United States and Europe had established an implicit accord with the Middle East's authoritarian regimes; to turn a blind eye to dictatorial practices in exchange for achieving, securing and even promoting their strategic interests in the Middle East. So long as the authoritarian regimes fulfilled the West's interests in the Middle East--protecting Israel's security and even promoting friendly relationships with Israel, maintaining the influx of oil and energy supplies to the West, and complying with the Western capitals' demands in fighting against terrorism and containing the rogue states, particularly Iran--the Western nations had 'tolerated' the flagrant suppression of economic and political rights in the Arab region. (1)

Europe has always been involved in this accord between the United States and the despotic regimes in the Middle East. Despite its frequent confirmations of its obligation to encourage democracy in its Southern borders, Europe's behavior in practice did not differ from the American stances with regard to the Arab authoritarian regimes. In other words, for more than 20 years Europe has always been rhetorically a champion to democracy and human rights in addressing the region of the Middle East. However, in practice, the EU countries allied with the Middle East despotic regimes and did not lift a finger to the atrocities, so long as their strategic interests were maintained. Europe used the Arab despots to protect its security interests--particularly migration control, fighting against terrorism and suppressing political Islam--in exchange for ignoring the Middle East's promotion of democracy. (2) This paper argues that this accord is still working, even in the aftermath of the Arab revolts, albeit with a different mechanism.

The United States and Europe's negative response to Hamas' stunning victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections is still fresh in the Arab mind. This undermined the West's preaching for values of democracy and human rights in the Arab world. The clear message that the Arab political pundits and general public received was that the West has nothing to do with democracy when its results go against the grains of the United States and Europe. (3) Both the United States and Europe found themselves caught between the anvils of the "march of democracy" in the Arab world and the hammer of their traditional alliance with despotic regimes in the Middle East. (4) In other words, the collapse of some friendly authoritarian regimes in the Middle East produced more danger than opportunity to the Americans and the Europeans.

The cascade of Arab revolutions that unfolded in the Middle East posed grave challenges to both Europe and the United States. In brief, the main challenges included: the fall of their traditional authoritarian allies; the rise of the prospect of political Islam to take over in those countries; grave threats to Israel's security because of the likelihood of the collapse of the peace agreements; the rising prices of oil and the West's uncertainties about its influx; and the European fear of a sweeping illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe. (5) Whether the Arab Spring will democratize the Arab world or not, it has already ousted the despots that have been in harmony with Israel. Eventually, this signifies that the public opinion of the Arab regimes will be a crucial factor in their non-tolerant foreign policies against Israel and their further sympathy towards the Palestinians. (6)

If Israel is the prime 'loser,' the United States becomes the second. The United States would no longer be able to control the Middle East. Instead of talking to and ordering only a few authoritarian leaders, the Obama administration must now address the Arab public opinion, which has always expressed its deep resentment and bitterness against the American and Western "imperial control" of the region's destiny. (7) Israel's security concerns, in particular, rapidly increased with the Arab awakenings in the Middle East.

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