The Arab Spring, the Responsibility to Protect, and U.S. Foreign Policy - Some Preliminary Thoughts

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By the autumn of 2012 the euphoria accompanying the heady days of the Arab Spring was replaced by uncertainty and unease. (1) The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that toppled several oppressive regimes in the region began in Tunisia in December 2010 in the wake of the self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, and spread to Egypt and Libya in January and February 2011, respectively. Within a month, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, who had long ruled their countries with an iron hand, were gone. Yemen and Bahrain faced similar protests and demands for change, followed by Libya in February 2011, where Colonel Muammar Qaddafi used brute force to suppress dissent.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Security Council, and the Arab League condemned the gross and persistent violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the Qaddafi regime. These condemnations and demands for the Qaddafi regime not to use force against peaceful demonstrators were met by total defiance. The Security Council imposed sanctions, and in response to calls for a no-fly zone and intervention to protect civilians NATO intervened, and after protracted civil war Colonel Qaddafi was overthrown and subsequently killed by rebels. The Syrian conflict continues, resulting in death and destruction in the country and the fear that the conflict--which is spilling over into the neighboring countries--will destabilize the region.

Almost two years have passed since the initial Tunisian protests. With governments in transition in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and continuing unrest in several other countries, an appraisal of the outcome of these dramatic changes in the region is warranted.

Writing in the November 8, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books, two keen observers stated:

   Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and
   destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for
   influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with
   which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become
   distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political
   visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is
   religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is
   unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not
   stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward.
   It slips sideways. (2)

Paul Richter said on September 14, 2012, in the Los Angeles Times: "The cascade of anti-American protests in the Middle East this week is a jolting reminder to the White House of a dangerous dimension of the 'Arab Spring' revolutions: Freedom for long-suppressed Islamist groups that weak elected governments can't manage and that America can't control." (3)

What follows in Section II is a brief look at the major recent developments in selected countries in the region. Section III highlights the Responsibility to Protect ("R2P"), a concept endorsed by the 2005 World Summit of Heads of State and Government to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, (4) its invocation and application in Libya, and the failure of the international community to apply it in Syria. Section IV introduces the contribution of the 44th Annual Sutton Colloquium participants in this issue, preceding the concluding remarks in Section V.


A common feature of all these countries in transition is their ailing economies. A long period of unrest, coupled with uncertainty about the political and economic direction of these countries, has taken a heavy toll. Selected developments of note follow.

A. Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood was not actively involved during the struggle against Hosni Mubarak as demonstrations and liberal and secular forces primarily led protests in Tahrir Square. …