‘US must stand by Arab Spring’ (think 1848, not 1989)

Demonstrators today attacked U.S. embassies in Yemen and Egypt, Reuters reports, in fresh protests against a film they consider offensive to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

This week’s fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo “raise troubling questions about the whole experience of the Arab awakening and why security has gotten so far out of control,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council.

The current wave of attacks “could alter U.S. attitudes towards the revolutions that toppled secularist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and brought Islamists to power,” observers suggest.

The anti-American tone of the violence has prompted some observers to suggest that U.S. support for the Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box of illiberalism and extremism.

“This kind of event underlines the… extent to which there are militant groups in most of these Arab Spring countries which are going to be looking for ways to exploit the new political Wild East situation,” said John Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“And that’s going make presidents think two or three times before they jump on board the liberty bandwagon.”

But the attackers are not representative of the wider population, says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former high-ranking State Department official who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The attacks were carried out by “extremely conservative Islamic factions that are not happy with the direction of change in their countries. They’re trying to gain the attention of the public in their countries by using America as a political football – and the film made a perfect gift for doing that.”

The death of Chris Stevens, the US envoy to Libya, “signifies the grave challenges facing the United States as well as transitional and sitting governments in the Arab world regarding Islamist extremists,” says Lina Khatib, head of Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy.

For the Obama administration, “politically the bigger issue is Egypt,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “On the one hand, you didn’t have Americans getting killed, but this was the fourth time an embassy was assaulted in Cairo with the Egyptian police doing precious little,” Mr. Indyk said. “And where was President Morsi’s condemnation of this?”

Several foreign policy experts said they worried that Mr. Morsi was putting appeasement of his country’s Islamist population ahead of national security. That comes on top of other moves by his government, including restrictions on press freedom and squabbling with Israel over how to crack down on terrorists taking root in the Sinai Peninsula.

While the killing of Mr. Stevens is a “tragedy,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, “in the longer term, Libya mainly is a problem for Libyans.” What happens in Egypt, by contrast, from “popular attitudes toward the U.S., to its domestic economy, to relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, to relations between Cairo and Jerusalem, to the situation in Sinai, will profoundly affect the region, and so will profoundly affect America’s posture in the region,” he said.

The political openings of the Arab Spring have been especially beneficial to formerly suppressed radical Islamist groups, say observers. According to Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the protest in Egypt was planned by radical Salafists, who exploited the video ridiculing Islam in an act of political opportunism.

“Although the Arab world is witnessing the beginning of a new era carrying much optimism, we must never forget that because democratic gains are a loss for radical groups, they are likely to go to extreme measures to jeopardize democratic transition and reassert their power,” says Stanford’s Khatib.

Violence in Egypt is “taking on a more ideological bent as radical Islamist groups suppressed under the old regime begin to reassert themselves,” said Richard Cochrane, who specializes on the Arab World at IHS analysts in London.

The attacks have exposed the resilience of some of the most toxic elements of the region’s political culture, say observers, including anti-Americanism and popular vulnerability to political opportunists.

“Islamist movements (even if they are not alone in this) have shown that they excel in using an insult (real or perceived) as part of their culture wars,” writes Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Center for Foreign Relations. The independent Cairo-based journalist, who blogs as The Arabist, had hoped that the pro-democracy uprisings would lead to “a qualitative change in the substance of Arab politics.”

“I mean this not just in the sense that undemocratic regimes will be undone, replaced by real politics with real stakes and rotation of power,” he says. “I also mean that I hope the uprisings can short-circuit some old tropes of regional politics, about identity, wounded pride and angry impotence.”

Across the Middle East, “anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse, a crutch of sorts,” Michael Young writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star. “That is not to say that America is blameless or the Arabs always wrong; it’s to say that the positivist belief among Americans that they can be loved simply by altering their actions and manners is naively overstated.”

Libya’s Salafists, who performed poorly in the recent elections, are also exploiting the issue. They face a double challenge, says Khatib, based at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

“First, losing the support of Muammar Qaddafi, who, despite having fought them on many levels, still cooperated with and co-opted Islamist militias, and even threatened to unleash them in the wake of the February 17 revolution,” she said. “Second, losing popular support, Salafists have felt marginalized and threatened. Like in Egypt, they have played on anti-American sentiments to appeal to the population.”

Libya is also suffering from the state’s inability to establish basic security and rule of law.

“This shows the problem that we in Libya still face: There is no police force that can control the country. No central authority can control all these different armed, militant groups,” said Mohammed K. Arab, head of political science studies at Tripoli University. “Until we do, we will see continued instability.”

The state’s inability to rein in Islamist and other militias threatens to undermine Libya’s democratic prospects, as anticipated in a report from the National Endowment for Democracy which anticipated the country’s transitional challenges.

“It is political turmoil that provides militant groups with room to operate, and the uncertain handling of parts of the Libyan transition might have come back to haunt us,” said Sean Kane, a political analyst who has worked in Libya for the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based nonprofit group that promotes conflict resolution.

But the Salafists are not the sole culprits as Egypt’s more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is also exploiting the video and subsequent attacks, say observers.

“Why, despite the risks of escalation made obvious by the attack that killed four American diplomats in Benghazi, did the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general, Mahmoud Ghozlan, call for new protests after Friday prayers?,” asks Amrani.

“Why is the government condemning the lack of security at the embassy while the president’s political movement, which just spent the last week wooing American investors, calls for more protests? We are still far from the hoped-for improvement in the substance of politics and leadership.”

“I think that the growth of democracy in the Middle East is going to produce a lot more of this, and in some ways we’ve got to tighten our seatbelts, because democracy is going to bring forward the anti-Americanism that is widespread in the Middle East,” said Landis.

Despite evidence that the US public is wary of promoting democracy and of global involvement more generally, experts believe it would be a profound mistake to withdraw support for the Arab world’s democratic transition.

“The worst thing the United States could do right now is walk away,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “These transitions are going to be difficult, and in some cases, like this one, ugly, but I think the United States needs to stay engaged and help countries like Libya get on the right track toward effective democratic governance and security and economic development.”

A long-term, strategic perspective is essential to help democratize societies that have been subject to decades-long dictatorial rule, analysts contend.

“What you’re seeing in some places, it’s two steps forward and in some other places it’s a couple of steps back,” said Isobel Coleman, (above) a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East.”

Some observers attribute the violence to the legacy of authoritarian regimes that tolerated Salafist groups and quietly promoted anti-American sentiments, but insist that withdrawing support for Arab democracy and the region’s current transitions would be a hasty and counterproductive step.

“The Arab Spring is still in motion. It is not over. The Arab Spring has delivered positive results and negative results,” said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It was “the first time in almost 70 years that we have seen mass protests across the Arab world that more or less want to have better ties with the rest of the world but also dignity in Arab societies, and that can only be a positive thing”.

Voices on Capitol Hill have also cautioned against a U.S withdrawal of support for democratic change which would, says veteran Republican Senator John McCain, only empower al-Qaeda and other radical groups

If the Benghazi attack provokes Washington to end “our support for these people, to leave them on their own without our assistance and guidance, then the bad guys win, then the Islamists and terrorists win”, he said, taking a stance that evidently enjoys bi-partisan support.

The U.S. and other democratic states should remain engaged to help stabilize countries such as Yemen, where radical jihadists pose a threat, said Brian Katulis, an analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

“Some may say that this situation in Libya would lead to further hesitations or disengagement from the Syria issue, and I don’t think that’s what will happen. I don’t think it’s the right path,” he added.

Democratic transitions are rarely without upheaval, said Allen Keiswetter, a Middle East Institute scholar.

“It’s going to take time for the Western idea of freedom of speech and religious tolerance to take hold in these countries,” he said.

Libya in particular, has no tradition of democratic governance. “Democratizing countries are among the most violent as they work through their systems,” said Keiswetter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

It is often stated that a democratic transition is a process, not an event, but history suggests that the democratization of the Arab world may be more protracted than in other regions.

The United States can serve its interests only “if it understands that it may well face a decade of diplomacy and aid efforts” to help the countries develop functioning democracies, writes Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We in the West need to remember that the ‘European spring’ that began with the French Revolution (or 1848 depending on your choice of historians) triggered upheavals that lasted until at least 1914, and did not end in anything approaching stability,” he wrote.

The current spate of attacks and upsurge in anti-Americanism demonstrate the failure of efforts to improve the U.S. image in the Arab world through public diplomacy and other forms of feel-good outreach, some observers suggest.

“Being loved is not nearly as important as being respected, and in that regard the United States has been riding a roller coaster,” Michael Young writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star:

When each post-Cold War administration has cast fundamental doubt on the Middle Eastern policies of its predecessor, holding it responsible for everything that is haywire in the region, expect Arabs to enjoy those catfights, but also to see their doubts about America reinforced. The reality is that when no clear, overriding strategy exists for America’s approach to the Middle East, administrations function more on the basis of domestic politics, calculations and rivalries, and these tend to be alien to the concerns of the Arab countries they influence.

“The White House and the State Department would do best to save their public diplomacy funds and focus more on a redefining a lasting, bipartisan strategy toward the Middle East that can span antagonistic administrations,” he concludes.

Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

Dealing with the ‘Salafi moment’

The “populist puritans” responsible for the attacks on the US facilities in Cairo and Benghazi are widely considered the fastest-growing movement in contemporary Islam, notes Christian Caryl.

By some accounts, generous foreign funding from the Gulf is responsible for much of the Salafists’ recent success.

“In short, no one should count on the Salafis to go away any time soon. So how should the outside world deal with them — especially if they’re going to go around storming foreign embassies?” Caryl writes on Foreign Policy:

First, don’t generalize. Not all Salafis should be treated as beyond the pale. Salafis who are willing to stand by the rules of democracy and acknowledge the rights of religious and cultural minorities should be encouraged to participate in the system. With time, voters in the new democracies of the region will discriminate between the demagogues and the people who can actually deliver a better society.

Second, don’t allow radicals to dictate the rules for everyone else. This is why the outcome of the current political conflicts in Tunisia and Libya are extremely important for the region as a whole. In both countries, voters have now had the opportunity to declare their political preferences in free elections, and they have delivered pretty clear messages. Libyans voted overwhelmingly for secular politicians, while Tunisians chose a mix of moderate Islamists and secularists. But the Salafis in both places don’t seem content to leave it at that, and are trying to foment instability by instigating a culture war.


Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

Silence over Xi Jinping ‘does not befit a modern nation’

The 11-day disappearance of Xi Jinping (right), China’s presumptive heir to power, is raising speculation about a possible power struggle within the ruling Communist party and highlighting the tension between the country’s increasingly open, dynamic economy and its closed and secretive political elite.

China’s next leader has not been seen in public he suffered a heart attack, a Beijing source told London’s Daily Telegraph. Other observers believe his absence is due to political infighting within the ruling party’s upper echelons.

“A theory I have is that Xi Jinping is busy working out, figuring out, negotiating a solution to the Bo Xilai case,” Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan* told National Public Radio.

China’s rulers sparked an economic boom that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and elevated the country into the world’s second-largest economy, notes one analyst.

“However, its own ability to change has not kept up. Now in its seventh decade, it has yet to create a transparent system of governance for itself – a failure highlighted by fevered speculation about the disappearance of Xi Jinping,” writes the FT’s Kathrin Hille. “The party sticks to rigid Leninist structures increasingly at odds with the market economy and pluralist society it helped create.”

China’s social media community has speculated “about whether Mr. Xi will be a Deng Xiaoping figure who will open China’s authoritarian system, or a conservative ‘princeling’ (a privileged son of a party loyalist) who will protect his party’s privilege,” one observer notes, but now Xi’s disappearance threatens to “throw the entire transition into chaos,” analysts suggest.

The case illustrates one of the core contradictions of China’s Market-Leninist system – between an open economy and a closed, secretive party.

The ruling Communist elite simply “does not think that the public has a right to know about the affairs of leading personnel unless the message is carefully controlled and positive,” said Harvard University China expert Anthony Saich.

The party’s secretive approach may prove counterproductive, observers say, if speculation fuels uncertainty.

“In most countries including in Asia, people are entitled to know the health of their leaders, but in China this is still regarded as state secrets,” said Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher who teaches at universities in Hong Kong and Japan.

“The Chinese leadership is worried about social stability,” echoed David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But nothing creates greater social instability than this kind of lack of information about the leadership.”

The affair also threatens to undermine the ruling party’s much-cherished reputation for efficient – if authoritarian – governance, the New York Times suggests.

“These are not signs that everything is going well,” said Bo Zhiyue, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. “Negotiations seem to be going on.”

China’s political system has long been a black box, but its all-encompassing secrecy has begun to seem anachronistic as the country has become one of the world’s biggest economic, political and military powers. …. Smooth transitions are considered by many Chinese as a crucial test of the Communist Party’s longevity, and its leaders are eager to make the case that their authoritarian system can manage China better than a multiparty democracy could.

“Authorities are worried about anything that may tarnish the transition,” said Joseph Y. S. Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “But this concern is working against their interests; they should come out with a clear statement” about Mr. Xi’s whereabouts.

But some observers contend that that the affair will play into the hands of party reformers and democracy advocates. 

“Xi’s disappearance will undoubtedly serve to bolster calls for political reform, spurring a momentous backlash against the notorious media and cyber censorship, and sparking loud cries for democracy, rule of law and transparent governance,” writes analyst Yun Tang.  

He is probably thinking of inner-party reformers like Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing.

“We will definitely have fully competitive elections even for our top leaders including the party secretary-general eventually,” she asserts. “Democracy is a global trend nobody can stem. Officials will work harder and be more conscientious if they have to run for office.”

*Andrew Nathan is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest

Americans sour on global role, wary of promoting democracy

Disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are more wary of international engagement, with democracy promotion coming bottom of the list of priorities, according to the “gold standard” survey of public opinion on foreign policy.

“Americans have become increasingly selective about how and where to engage in the world,” with younger “Millennials” showing a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment, says the survey on Foreign Policy in the New Millennium from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the United States should take an active role in world affairs, but the 38 percent opposed represent the highest level recorded by the Chicago Council or comparable surveys since 1947.

While 83 percent of respondents believe “protecting the jobs of American workers” is a “very important” foreign policy goal of the United States, only 14 percent consider “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” to be a priority.

Some 72 percent say that “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons” is “very important,” while 64 percent stress “combating international terrorism,” while 28 percent prioritize “promoting and defending human rights in other countries.”

Democracy assistance practitioners may take some solace from the likelihood that the lack of political support for promoting democracy stems from its unfortunate and mistaken association with the Iraq war. But there will also be concern that a younger generation appears to conflate forcible or military forms of regime change with non-violent, low cost and demonstrably effective approaches to cultivating democracy through assistance to local activists and institutions.

“The Chicago Council has been conducting foreign policy surveys periodically since 1974,” notes James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and they have been the gold standard in the field for about as long.”

The survey reveals considerable generational differences, with millennials (between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine) in particular “less pessimistic than most Americans about their future status and are less alarmed about major threats facing the country, particularly international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the development of China as a world power.”

The democracy dividend that has proven elusive in the Arab world is similarly lacking at home.

“The public ultimately has not viewed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as successful, seeing neither security benefits nor an increase in democracy in the greater Middle East as a result of U.S. efforts,” the report states.

The survey finds little polarization between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy, but suggests that public opinion may drive a “reorientation in the new millennium.”

“New forces are having an impact on American foreign policy preferences, including the Millennials and Independents,” the Council suggests. “Yet there is great consistency over the past decade in American support for cooperating with allies, participating in international treaties, and intervening militarily against genocide and humanitarian crises. In this regard, Americans remain true to their underlying values and aspirations for the United States to play a positive international role.”

The Millennials are primarily responsible for an increase in isolationism, reversing the increased support for international engagement that emerged following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

“In 2002 public support for taking an active part in world affairs rose to its highest level since the 1950s,” the survey notes. “In 2002, 71 percent preferred to take an active part, with only 25 percent wanting to “stay out.” Now 38 percent say that the United States should stay out of world affairs, the highest percentage recorded in any survey since 1947.”

A majority of Americans (52 percent) believeS Asia is now more important to the U.S. than Europe, a reversal of the findings two years ago when Europe was prioritized by a margin of 51 to 41 percent.

Large majorities of respondents favor diplomatic engagement with hostile or unfriendly states and terrorist groups.

“By margins of more than two to one, Americans say the United States should be ready to hold talks with the leaders of Cuba (73%), North Korea (69%), and Iran (67%),” the report states. “Somewhat fewer Americans favor negotiating with nonstate actors such as Hamas and the Taliban.”

Attitudes towards the Muslim world have shifted, perhaps as a consequence of Arab Spring.

Most Americans appear unconcerned that the withdrawal of U.S. support for authoritarian regime will facilitate the election of Islamist governments

Thirty-seven percent of respondents believe the current upheavals will have no impact on the United States, while 34 percent say they will be positive and 24 percent negative.  Only 6 percent say that the United States should discourage democracy to prevent the election of an Islamic fundamentalist, while a majority (64%) says the U.S. should not take a position either way and 29 percent say that America should encourage democracy in any case.

Yet the survey reveals a “striking” 13-point increase in opposition to economic aid for Egypt, possibly in reaction to growing anti-American sentiment in Cairo manifested in the prosecution of US-funded democracy activists.

“For the first time since the question was initially asked in 2002, a majority of Americans say economic aid to Egypt should be decreased or stopped altogether (52%),” the survey notes.

Democracy promotion is one of several foreign policy issues on which Democrats and Republicans exhibit consensus. Some 21 percent of Democrats believe that “helping to bring democracy to other nations” is a very important foreign policy goal, while only 11% of Republicans and 10% of independents do so.

“Americans of all political stripes place importance on protecting jobs and do not think highly of bringing democracy to other nations, as has been the case for the past ten years,” the survey reports.


Print Friendly
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on Pinterest