False Dawn: The Arab Spring

Article excerpt

The Arab Spring was not the positive event many hoped it would be, argues Daniel Mandel.

In a sense, the so-called Arab Spring can be said to have begun on 26 December 2010 in the Tunisian hinterland township of Sidi Bouzid, where a 26-year-old impoverished vegetable seller and father of eight, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolated himself in protest at the umpteenth confiscation by local police of his vending cart.

Bouazizi s story of grinding poverty, struggle and degradation by authorities that cared nothing for his dignity or livelihood resonated across the country, igniting a month-long series of popular demonstrations. These soon came to encompass protests against matters as diverse as the high cost of living, unemployment, restrictions on union rights and censorship that culminated in the flight of Tunisia's autocrat of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A similar sequence of events quickly unfolded in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, disposing of seemingly immovable Arab autocracies and making it possible, at least at first, to speak of an Arab Spring.

Stated like that, it is difficult to see what objections could be made or misgivings registered with this process. Little appreciated, however, has been the pivotal US role in the upturning of the old order and just what that turbulence has brought in its wake. Here, some perspective is essential.

President George W. Bush had tried to promote democracy in the Muslim world (the 'freedom agenda ) on the basis that regional pathologies stemmed from repression and autocracy that incubated Islamism and harvested global terrorism. However, while this diagnosis had merit, the proposed treatment was less efficacious: a preoccupation with importing the processes of democracy (elections, constitutions) rather than its purposes (rule of law, accountable institutions, civil society and political pluralism) to the region.

Moreover, Bush's reforming zeal did not commend itself to his Arab interlocutors, least of all Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Despite withholding tranches of military aid and applying diplomatic pressure on this most populous Arab state and US ally to see human rights activists like Saed Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour freed from prison, matters continued to be arranged in Cairo so as to confirm Mubarak's grip on power. American efforts to alter regimes, with armed force in the case of Iraq, also fuelled a furious critique of American neo -imperialism and unilateralism.

Lacking support at home and abroad and without much to show for its efforts, the Bush Administration quietly drew back from (without, however, entirely abandoning) its freedom agenda. While it continued to back Egyptian democrats and bloggers, it looked on and relented to resuming aid as Mubarak rigged parliamentary elections, cancelled local elections, cracked down on demonstrators and re-imprisoned Nour. There matters rested until Barack Obama coasted to victory in the 2008 US presidential elections.

Coming in as the anti-Bush, Obama duly instituted a 'reset' with the Arab and Muslim world. In his new policy of Muslim outreach, enunciated in his June 2009 address in Cairo, Obama promised a 'new beginning', 'mutual respect' and dismissed active American promotion of democracy: 'no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other'- an applause line that was actually met with silence by his Cairene audience.

Thus, in 2010 Obama, the biggest-spending US president in history, drastically cut Bush's funding to NGOs and programs designed to promote democracy in Egypt from about $50 million to $20 million. He also abruptly discontinued funding for the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which was forced to close its doors almost immediately after the 2009 orgy of Iranian repression which followed the rigged presidential elections that reconfirmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

Obama's 'reset' also included another element: promoting Islam as a beneficent force in world affairs. …