Weakening Washington's Middle East Influence

By Smith, Lee | Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Weakening Washington's Middle East Influence


Smith, Lee, Middle East Quarterly


Trailing the wave of revolutions that began sweeping through the Arabic-speaking Middle East this January, I recently traveled in the region, visiting some of the capitals where what we have come to call the "Arab Spring"? has hit.

In Cairo, I kept company with the handful of Egyptian political activists from the social media generation who were skeptical of a revolution that had already started to show its populist roots. In Manama, I met with members of the mainstream opposition movement who contended that, contrary to their government's claims, the Shiites of Bahrain wanted nothing to do with Tehran: In the 1970 U.N. poll about the emirate's future, Bahrainis expressed the wish to remain part of an independent Arab state under the ruling al-Khalifa family but demanded their political rights-and still do. And from Beirut, I watched another uprising kick off over the anti-Lebanon mountain range in Damascus as many Lebanese quietly hoped that the revolution there would do away with the Assad regime while fearing the repercussions could not help but come back on them.

After a month in North Africa, the Levant, and the Persian Gulf countries, I am still unsure what these uprisings have in common, if anything. The regimes that suffered these blows are themselves different from place to place, for all authoritarian regimes are authoritarian in their own way-Husni Mubarak was no Saddam Hussein, nor even a Bashar al-Assad.

Perhaps our eagerness to see the upheavals as one wider movement is less a representation of reality than a reflection of how the Middle East is understood by large segments of the American intelligentsia"?a habit of mind that of late was most powerfully expressed by President Barack Obama. It was during the June 2009 Cairo speech, 1 after all, where Obama transgressed the borders according to which Washington maintained and advanced its interests, describing the region in terms of Muslims, a Muslim world that is by definition borderless, transnational, and not specific to the particular circumstances of history, geography, and politics that give nation-states their character. Obama's Muslim world is amorphous, more like a sentiment than a physical fact, something perhaps similar in nature to the "Arab Spring."

BIRDS OF MANY FEATHERS

It has been argued that the recent events were driven by economic motives, insofar as all these revolts pitted the have-nots against the haves; and yet the particular circumstances vary greatly. There is little comparison, for instance, between the grand prize up for grabs in Libya's civil war (control of the countr'oil) and the fairer employment, and educational and housing opportunities sought by the Bahraini opposition. Furthermore, the blanket charge of corruption against economic elites across the region obscures the genuine reforms that won the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes high marks from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The onetime, popular notion that all these opposition groups are united in their calls for democracy is starting to fade in light of the evidence. It seems, for instance, that the Libyan rebels comprise a large component of violent Islamists, 2 some of whom fought against U.S. forces in Iraq. There is concern that parts of the Syrian revolution are also spearheaded by Is-lamists, and there is little doubt that the fall of Egyptian president Mubarak will give more power to the Muslim Brotherhood. And even the very model of the Arab democracy activist, that young, middle-class, social-media-mad Egyptian, has begun to look different than when he first took to Tahrir Square on January 25. In their demands for retribution and revenge against the scions of the late regime, the Egyptian activists seem less inspired by the rule of law, due process, and other features of liberal democratic reform for which they petitioned and protested, than by the tradition of modern Egyptian populism, 3 from Saad Zaghloul to Gamal Abdel Nasser. …

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