Interview: All eyes on Egypt’s military: How will it respond?

As mass demonstrations continue to threaten Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power, the country’s powerful military is emerging as perhaps the crucial player in determining the course of events in the Middle East’s most populous nation.

Already, the army — which has long enjoyed close ties to the ruling regime — is playing a key role in the efforts of the embattled Mubarak regime to control the growing chaos. Over the weekend, after police withdrew, the army deployed to cities across Egypt, keeping order but generally not forcing protesters from the streets. Today, the Egyptian government received permission from Israel to move soldiers into the Sinai Peninsula, which has been largely demilitarized since a 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. And Mubarak has now turned to three career military men — including Omar Suleiman, a former army general and head of the intelligence services, now appointed vice president — to help run the government.

But the army has promised not to fire on peaceful protests, and has said it recognizes the legitimacy of the protester’s demands. If it were to turn completely on Mubarak, he could lose his already tenuous hold on power.
The Lookout asked Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, about how the Egyptian military might respond, and how that response might influence events:

LOOKOUT: What role has the military played in Egyptian society during Mubarak’s regime? How is it viewed by ordinary Egyptians?

SZ: Egypt has essentially been under military rule since the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Mubarak, for example, was the commander of the Egyptian air force prior to Sadat (also a career military officer) naming him as vice-president in 1975. In recent years, the military hierarchy appeared to oppose Mubarak’s intention of naming his son Gamal as his successor. With the naming of military intelligence chief Suleiman as vice president, the military hierarchy is reasserting its political leadership.

LOOKOUT: Now that the army has been called out into the streets in certain areas to confront protesters, are Egyptian soldiers expected to remain loyal to Mubarak? Would that still likely be the case if they were ordered to fire on Egyptian citizens?

SZ: While the military might be willing to push Mubarak aside, they are unlikely to support a democratic transition of the kind being demanded from the street. And there are certainly those in the military leadership who would be willing to try a Tiananmen Square-style massacre to stop it. The bigger question is whether soldiers, overwhelmingly from the poorest and most disenfranchised segments of the Egyptian population, would be willing to obey those kinds of orders. I would tend to doubt it.

LOOKOUT: Without the support of the army, would Mubarak have any way to hold onto power?

SZ: In either case, it appears at this point that Mubarak is finished. Certainly by September, when the presidential elections are scheduled, but I am assuming long before then. You can have all the formal trappings of government you want and all the military firepower at your disposal you can muster, but if people don’t recognize your authority and refuse to obey your orders, you no longer have power. Dictators from [Ferdinand] Marcos to [Slobodan] Milosevic, when faced with similar uprisings, found this out the hard way, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that Mubarak will as well.

LOOKOUT:Â What are the various pressures acting on the military, both the commanders and the rank-and-file troops?

SZ: The Obama administration has apparently told the military that a crackdown would lead to the severing of US military aid and cooperation, which — given the $1.5 billion annual taxpayer-funded US assistance — is quite a disincentive. For the troops, they may be faced with the choice of disobeying commands or attacking their friends, family and neighbors.

LOOKOUT: The military could well play a role in any new regime that replaced Mubarak. What might such a government look like and how might it rule differently from Mubarak’s regime? Would it be any more democratic or open?

SZ: Some argue that the military under Oman Suleiman’s leadership is essentially in charge already. In any case, Suleiman has shown strong leadership and mediation skills, and is well liked in some Western capitals, but he is no democrat. He is despised by many Egyptians as a result of his ruthlessness as head of military intelligence, where he effectively served as torturer-in-chief.

While some hope he might be pragmatic enough to lead a democratic transition, it is unlikely that the protesters will be satisfied unless there is a broad representative civilian interim government that can oversee free elections. Neither Mubarak nor the military can be trusted to supervise free and fair elections.

Obama’s Shift on Egypt

There has been a major shift within the Obama administration over the weekend regarding its policy toward Egypt. President Obama appears to have finally realized that reform within the regime, as the administration had been advocating until Sunday, will not placate the Egyptian people. The administration has yet to issue an explicit call for the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, at least in public. However, yesterday, for the first time, Secretary of State Clinton and other officials began calling for “an orderly transition” to democracy.

The apparent change in the administration’s approach comes from the belated realization that nothing short of a Tienanmen Square-style massacre would probably stop the protests, and such measures using US-provided weaponry would inflame anti-Americanism throughout Egypt and the entire Arab world and would likely drive the anti-Mubarak resistance underground into the arms of violent extremists. White House sources indicate that the Obama administration has made it clear to the Egyptian military that any large-scale repression would have seriously negative implications for the US-Egyptian relationship, presumably meaning severing US military aid and cooperation, which has amounted to $1.5 billion annually. They are pushing for Mubarak and the military to bow out in place of an interim civilian coalition followed by free elections.

Given the ambivalent signals from the administration last week and continued support for Mubarak by some prominent Republican Congressional leaders and influential media pundits, there is concern within the White House as to whether the Egyptian regime has gotten the message. Already, Republicans and their allies are building the foundations of an “Obama lost Egypt” attack should a democratic transition lead to an anti-American government or serve as a precedent for further instability in the Middle East. Ironically, the position of hard-line elements in the Egyptian military may also be bolstered by human rights advocates and other critics of the Obama administration on the left who, understandably angry at US support for the longstanding support of the Mubarak dictatorship, have continued to underscore the outlandish statements late last week by Clinton and by Vice-President Joe Biden in which they appeared to be defending the regime.

There have been major divisions within the administration over the past few days regarding US policy toward Egypt. However, Biden, Clinton, and others who favored backing Mubarak, or steering the regime to a milder authoritarianism under Omar Suleiman and the military, appear to have lost out. Obama appears to have recognized that the future of Egypt will come not from Washington and other Western capitals, but from the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities and that, when an unarmed insurrection advances to the stage it currently is in Egypt, the United States can no more suppress or co-opt pro-democracy forces than the Soviet Union could do in regard to similar movements in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Indeed, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

In belatedly pushing for a democratic transition in Egypt, Obama has demonstrated a rare show of spine against not only Congressional Republicans, but many prominent Democratic hawks, State Department veterans, the Israel Lobby, and other supporters of the Mubarak dictatorship. Obama may have finally realized that, at this crucial historical juncture, the United States cannot afford be on the wrong side of history.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the US government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding US power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Military aid and arms sales to Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and other repressive Arab regimes continued unabated. However, the White House’s statement yesterday calling for the Egyptian regime to support “universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech,” the exercise of which would surely lead to its downfall, is indicative of an awareness that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

The United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. The lingering hopes in Washington that Mubarak will be able to stay in office until the presidential election in September are completely unrealistic. And, regarding US policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through the ongoing military assistance.

However, this apparent shift away from the Mubarak regime — like the similar reversal in US policy toward the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia a couple weeks ago — serves as an important reminder as to where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who — like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Chileans, Poles, and others — have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

US Continues to Back Egyptian Dictatorship in the Face of Pro-Democracy Uprising

Washington’s continued support for the Egyptian dictatorship in the face of massive pro-democracy protests is yet another sign that both Congress and the Obama administration remain out of touch with the growing demands for freedom in the Arab world. Just last month, Obama and the then-Democratic-controlled Congress approved an additional $1.3 billion in security assistance to help prop up Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.

In the course of some pro-democracy civil insurrections, such as those in Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, such as Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, and particularly if the dictatorship is a US ally like Egypt, Washington has shown little enthusiasm for such freedom struggles.

The United States has defended its support of the Mubarak dictatorship as part of the war on terror, seeing the Egyptian regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremism; however, the main organizers of the massive street protests are the 6 April youth movement, which is not only alienated from the secular Mubarak regime, but from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, as well. The Brotherhood refused to back up the protesters through the morning of January 25, (though it later opportunistically endorsed them as it witnessed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians joining the protesters’ ranks). The demonstrators being beaten, shot and tear-gassed by US-supplied equipment want freedom and justice, not theocracy.

While European leaders strongly criticized the crackdown, as of the afternoon of the second day of the protests, Hillary Clinton still refused to criticize the Egyptian government. Despite appearances to the contrary, Clinton insisted that “the country was stable” and that the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” despite the miserable failure of the regime in its nearly 30 years in power to do so. Asked whether the United States still supports Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Egypt remains a “close and important ally.” As during the Tunisian protests, the Obama administration tried to equate the scattered violence of some pro-democracy protesters with the far greater violence of the dictatorship’s security forces, with Gibbs saying, “We continue to believe first and foremost that all of the parties should refrain from violence.”

Finally, after 36 hours of heavy police repression, Clinton issued a statement urging “Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications including on social media sites.” Rather than calling on the dictator to step down, she encouraged him to take more responsible leadership, saying, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

At the height of the protests, as tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists nonviolently occupying Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo were being brutally assaulted by police, Obama delivered his State of the Union address. While claiming that the United States supports “the democratic aspirations of all people,” he made no mention of Egypt, nor of the dramatic events unfolding there which, outside of the United States, were the major focus of the world’s media at that hour.

The repressive nature of Egypt’s Mubarak dictatorship has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and other groups. This is a country where a simple gathering of five or more people without a permit is illegal. Peaceful pro-democracy protesters are routinely beaten and jailed. Martial law has been in effect for nearly 30 years. Independent observers are banned from monitoring the country’s routinely rigged elections, from which the largest opposition party is banned while other opposition parties are severely restricted in producing publications and other activities.

It’s well documented that the Egyptian government engages in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses against perceived opponents of the regime, including massive detentions without due process, torture on an administrative basis and extrajudicial killings. Targets of government repression have included not just radical Islamists, but leftists, liberal democrats, feminists, gay men, independent-minded scholars, students, trade unionists, Coptic Christians and human rights activists.

In an interview with the BBC in 2009 just prior to Obama’s visit to Egypt, Justin Webb asked the president, “Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?” Obama’s reply was “No,” insisting that, “I tend not to use labels for folks.” Obama also refused to acknowledge Mubarak’s authoritarianism on the grounds that, “I haven’t met him,” as if the question was in regard to the Egyptian dictator’s personality rather than his well-documented intolerance of dissent.

In further justifying his refusal to acknowledge the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian government, Obama referred to Mubarak as “a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States.” He praised Egypt’s despotic president for having “sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region,” though, given that no Arab government has waged war with Israel for over 35 years, this is hardly so unique an accomplishment as to justify shying away from legitimate criticism of the Egyptian leader’s dictatorial rule. Obama went on to insist that, “I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region.”

When the BBC’s Webb asked Obama how he planned to address the issue of the “thousands of political prisoners in Egypt,” he answered only in terms of the United States being a better role model, such as closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and of the importance of the United States not trying to impose its human rights values on other countries. While these are certainly valid points, they offer little hope for the thousands of regime opponents now languishing in Egyptian prisons. Obama said nothing about the possibility of linking even part of the more than $1.7 billion in annual US aid to the Mubarak regime to providing freedom for these prisoners of conscience.

The most negative assessment Obama could muster for Mubarak’s dictatorial regime in the interview was, “Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.” Given that there have also been criticisms of the manner in which politics is conducted in every country of the world, including the United States, this can hardly count for a public display of disapproval. Even the Washington-based Freedom House ranks Egypt in the bottom quintile of the world’s countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Webb’s question was not about whether there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt. The question was whether Mubarak was an authoritarian leader. Even if Obama did not feel comfortable labeling the Egyptian president himself as an authoritarian, he should have at least acknowledged that Mubarak leads an authoritarian government.

Obama’s lack of support for democracy in Egypt and the Arab world has caused intense anger throughout the region. Think how much better relations would be with the people of the Middle East if Obama had said something like, “Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East … the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Could he say such a thing? Yes. In fact, those were his exact words when, as an Illinois state senator, he gave a speech at a major antiwar rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002.

Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military and economic aid. As president of the United States, Obama would have enormous leverage, should he choose to wield it, in pressing Egypt to end oppression of its own people, suppression of dissent, toleration of corruption and inequality and mismanagement of its economy.

To his credit, when Obama visited Egypt in 2009 and gave his now-famous speech at the University of Cairo, he did engage in a few symbolic efforts to demonstrate a concern for human rights. He didn’t praise Mubarak from the podium, as is generally customary on such occasions. Nor did he physically embrace Mubarak or otherwise offer visual displays of affection, as is typical during such visits to leaders in that region. The Obama administration invited some leading critics of the regime, including both secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his speech. However, Kefaya, Egypt’s leading grassroots pro-democracy group, boycotted the speech. It demanded that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not words.

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Backdrop to the Resistance

The vast majority of Egyptians are under 30 years of age. They are fed up with the repressive and corrupt US-backed regime that has provided so little promise for their future. While most are observant Muslims, there is not much enthusiasm for the traditional conservative Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership, which has dominated the organized opposition. There is virtually no support for Islamist extremists, either. Many of these young Egyptians seem dedicated to making change on their own terms. Smart phones and the Internet are leading to unprecedented access to alternative media and are forming the basis for a growing wave of pro-democracy organizing.

Crushing poverty, increasing human rights abuses, rampant inflation, institutionalized corruption, a deteriorating educational system and high unemployment have spawned the largest social movement in the country in more than 50 years. Even prior to this week’s dramatic events, many thousands had protested in Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities despite brutal police attacks on demonstrators, widespread torture of detainees and other repressive measures.

The Obama administration acknowledges that, despite the repression, Egypt has developed “a vibrant civil society.” Unfortunately, says opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, US policy toward the Middle East “has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it’s been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.” The Nobel Peace Prize laureate also observed, “If you bet on individuals, instead of the people, you are going to fail. And western policy so far has been to bet on individuals, individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day.”

Journalist Ibrahim Eissa noted that “Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all” to end the repression, nor is Obama “realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.” Similarly, Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House observed how the November parliamentary elections posed “a clear-cut choice for the Obama administration – whether to side with the Egyptian government or with the Egyptian people.” Despite rampant fraud, a refusal to allow independent election monitors and mass arrests and media suppression just prior to the election, Obama successfully pushed for a renewal of the multibillion dollar aid package to the Mubarak regime just weeks later.

A conference held in New York last year on the future of democracy in Egypt concluded that a possible explosion in popular protest could occur in the near future in response to repression and economic injustice. In an article last month, I predicted (unaware that the Tunisians would beat them to it), that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.”

The United States had provided a limited amount of aid to civil society organizations addressing women’s issues, working conditions, human rights and other pro-democracy efforts. An audit by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) concluded that economic assistance to these independent civil society organizations was far more effective than aid to government-controlled aid recipients.

On coming to office, however, Obama slashed such funding by 75 percent while maintaining the $1.3 billion in military assistance. Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that, “Members of the administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government.” Funding now goes into an endowment, which can only allocate to groups approved by the Mubarak regime. According to Safwat Girgis, leader of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights, Obama’s decision “is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor civil society organizations.”

Such “pro-democracy” funding from the US-government-backed agencies has been controversial among some opposition groups, for fear that dependency on such assistance could make them susceptible to a US political agenda. In addition, providing pro-democracy assistance to civil society groups while providing security assistance to a regime suppressing those very organizations is not unlike the US government’s old practice of paying for anti-smoking campaigns while subsidizing the tobacco industry. Still, a number of pro-democracy groups feel abandoned by Obama.

Indeed, US support for Egypt’s armed forces, paramilitary units and secret police – altogether numbering nearly one million – remains at over $1.3 billion annually. Egypt receives more than any other country except Israel. The military hardware provided by the United States not only directly contributes to the dictatorship’s ability to crush dissent and remain in power, but costs the Egyptian people billions of dollars in personnel, training, spare parts and upkeep which could go into badly needed domestic programs.

Economic Injustice

In addition to growing demands for political freedom, protests for economic justice are also on the rise.

Egypt’s minimum wage of $6 a day hasn’t gone up in more than a quarter century, even though the cost of living has quadrupled. Even by the World Bank’s modest measurements, nearly half of all Egyptians live below the poverty level. Per capita income is barely $1,000 a year. More than 40 percent of young Egyptians cannot afford to rent or purchase an apartment, or even marry.

Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly difficult for Egypt to feed its growing population, due in part to US pressure on the country to pursue an export-oriented model of development. More than half of Egypt’s food is imported – much in the form of subsidized US wheat – further escalating dependence on Washington.

For decades, the Egyptian regime has been reversing the socialist initiatives of the popular president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who ruled from the 1952 revolution until his death in 1970. The result has been increased inequality, with a tiny, wealthy elite controlling the majority of the economy and political power with little interest in opening up the political process to the masses. Mubarak’s US-backed neoliberal economic agenda has accelerated since the 1990’s, privatizing more than half of all public enterprises. This shift has resulted in weakened job security, fewer benefits and longer hours. The official government union does little to defend the workers. As a result, workers have taken things into their own hands. More than two million have participated in more than 3,300 strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations and other mass actions since 1998. A 2007 sit-in by 3,000 municipal workers at the finance ministry ultimately won them higher salaries and the right to form an independent union.

Last spring, thousands of workers staged rotating sit-ins in front of the parliament building despite efforts by police to disperse them by force. Prominent pro-Mubarak parliamentarian Hassan Nashaat al-Qasas called on the government to go beyond the use of water cannons and “shoot them” instead. In response, hundreds of defiant protesters marched, carrying placards with targets and shouting, “Shoot us!” As protests grew, the government announced a freeze on further privatization and gave in on a number of other economic demands.

Egypt is a critically important country. There are 82 million Egyptians, the equivalent of seven times the population of Israel and Palestine combined. Given the level of repression and the longstanding US support of the Mubarak regime, it is disappointing that more Americans haven’t challenged our Egypt policy. Historically, US support for authoritarian regimes does not end until the US public demands it. It is high time, then, to demand that Obama end US support for Mubarak and give the people of Egypt a chance to determine their own future.

The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries

The unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have opened up debate regarding prospects for democratization in Arab and other predominately Muslim countries. Many in the West are familiar with the way unarmed pro-democracy insurrections have helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa. But they discount the chances of such movements in Islamic countries, despite Tunisia being far from the first. Meanwhile, the United States — despite giving lip service in support for democracy — continues to actively support authoritarian governments in Islamic countries.

Obama was correctly cautious about offering more overt support for the 2009 pro-democracy uprising in Iran, recognizing that his advocacy could set back the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He was also aware that the history of U.S. intervention, explicit threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of democracy, had resulted in such strong anti-Americanism in Iran that the regime could use such support to discredit the pro-democracy movement.

Continuing Bush

Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan, and other dictatorial regimes in the region is much harder to defend.

The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, has fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, President Barack Obama’s understandable skepticism of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” is no excuse for his policy of further arming these regimes, which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular indigenous bottom-up struggles for democratization. (Ironically, this authoritarianism is then used to justify the large-scale, unconditional support of Israel on the grounds that it’s “the sole democracy in the Middle East.”)

Bush’s high-profile and highly suspect “democracy promotion” agenda provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists. It is presumably no coincidence that the only autocratic regimes that the Bush administration seriously pressed for reform were those that traditionally opposed American hegemonic goals. Bush called for spreading democracy “from Damascus to Tehran.” Yet, while Syria and Iran could certainly use more democracy, it is striking he did not similarly call for spreading democracy from Riyadh to Cairo. In many respects, Bush did for the cause of democracy what Stalin did for the cause of socialism: he used an idealistic principle to justify war, repression, and hegemony.

Furthermore, in recent years the United States has promoted “economic freedom” — a neo-liberal capitalist economic model that emphasizes open markets and free trade — as at least as important as political freedom. It is noteworthy that, according to 2007 figures, the largest single recipient of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy for the Middle East was the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Even during the height of U.S. assistance to Egypt and Algeria, the two most populous Arab countries, CIPE received three times as much NED funding as all human rights, development, legal, and civil society organizations combined. While liberalizing the economy from stifling state control can sometimes encourage political liberalization, the more extreme neo-liberal model of the so-called “Washington consensus” has tended to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of elites, particularly under authoritarian regimes, where the result is often crony capitalism rather than a truly free market, which weakens civil society rather than strengthens it.

The use of democracy as a disingenuous means of promoting U.S. hegemony was apparent in the way the Bush administration largely focused its attention on autocratic governments that opposed U.S. interests in the region. It criticized the human rights record of such countries as Syria and Iran and drew attention to the plight of certain suppressed minorities, dissident organizations, and individuals, while ignoring similar or worse abuses by pro-Western dictatorships. Even worse, at the request of the Bush administration in October 2002, a large bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress supported the Iraq War resolution, asserting the right of the United States to invade Middle Eastern countries on the grounds of “promoting democracy.”

In a report released in 2008, polls showed that while the majority of Middle Easterners supported greater democracy in their countries, there was a decidedly negative attitude toward the stated goal of the Bush administration for “democracy promotion.” Only 19 percent thought such efforts had a positive effect on their overall opinion of the United States while 58 percent stating it had a negative effect. Another revealing poll indicated that although two-thirds of Americans surveyed believed Muslim nations cannot be democratic, an even larger majority of Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries believe they can and should.

To Obama’s credit, there has been a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Despite his refusal to push Mubarak and other U.S.-backed dictators to reform, Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest. This administration recognizes that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above. Although this has largely been rhetorical and has not altered Washington’s propensity to provide security assistance to repressive regimes, it is this very right of protest that is key to the promotion of democracy in Islamic countries.

How Change Occurs

Throughout the world, in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, in recent years there has been a dramatic growth of the use of strategic nonviolent action. In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance to government authority. Either consciously or by necessity, they eschew the use of weapons of modern warfare. Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. These tactics may include strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, tax refusal, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization.

Freedom House recently produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the past few decades, concluded that they came overwhelmingly through democratic civil society organizations using nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance. Such transitions did not result from foreign invasion and came about only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary, elite-driven reforms. In another study on civil resistance of more than 300 struggles for self-determination against colonialism, military occupation, and colonial rule over the past century, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenowith noted that nonviolent struggles were more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles.

Islamic countries have experienced this phenomenon at least as often as any place else in the world. In Iran, the tobacco strike in the 1890s and the constitutional revolution in 1906 were both cases of mass nonviolent resistance against neo-colonialism and authoritarian rule. In Egypt, the 1919 Revolution, consisting of many months of civil disobedience and strikes, eventually led to independence from Britain.

In addition to the recent uprising in Tunisia and the ongoing revolt in Egypt, there have been other recent successful unarmed insurrections in the Islamic world. Civil insurrections in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 overthrew dictatorial regimes and led to brief periods of democratic governance. A popular nonviolent uprising toppled Mali’s repressive Traore regime in 1991, resulting in nearly 20 years of stable democracy in that West African country.

In Iran, the largely unarmed insurrection against the Shah toppled the monarchy in 1979 and brought a brief hope for freedom prior to hard-line Islamists consolidating their power; the aborted 2009 uprising may mark the beginning of a more complete democratic revolution. Strikes and other forms of mass resistance forced the resignation of Bangladesh’s General Ershad and the restoration of democracy in 1990. A student-led movement in 1998 forced the resignation of Suharto, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, after 33 years in power in Indonesia.

In Lebanon, the 2004 Cedar Revolution forced Syria to withdraw its troops and end its domination of Lebanese government. The largely nonviolent 2006 Tulip Revolution ousted Kyrgystan’s corrupt and autocratic regime of Askar Akeyev. Years of protests against the 30-year Gayoum dictatorship regime led to free elections in the Maldives in 2008, resulting in the autocrat’s defeat. And in Pakistan, a movement led by lawyers and other civil society organizations resulted in the resignation of U.S.-backed military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2009.

There are also ongoing nonviolent popular struggles against foreign military occupation, including the Palestinians in the West Bank, the Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights, and the Sahrawis in Western Sahara. In addition to those that took place in Iran, nonviolent struggles have sporadically challenged autocratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Niger, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere.

Despite Western stereotypes to the contrary, Islamic countries have been at least as prone to large-scale nonviolent struggles as other societies. One of the great strengths in Islamic cultures, which make unarmed insurrections possible, is the implied social contract between a ruler and subject. Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, stated this explicitly: “Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule. If I disobey him, you will owe me no obedience.” Such a pledge was reiterated by successive caliphs, including Imam Ali, who said, “No obedience is allowed to any creature in his disobedience of the Creator.” Indeed, most Islamic scholars have firmly supported the right of the people to depose an unjust ruler. The decision to refuse cooperation is a crucial step in building a nonviolent movement. Massive noncooperation with illegitimate authority is critical for any successful pro-democracy struggle.

The Role of the United States

What can the United States and other Western nations do to help this process? External support for nonviolent struggles in the Middle East can be a double-edged sword. Most struggles against a repressive regime would normally welcome international solidarity. But if the outside support is seen as coming from forces that don’t hold the best interest of the country’s people in mind, it can harm the chances of such a movement succeeding in its goals. At the same time, external actors have played an important role in supporting nonviolent struggles in the past. And thanks to enhanced international mobility and communication, such actors will likely play an increasingly important role in the future.

Aid for democracy assistance should be done very carefully to avoid backlash. Such aid worked in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, where the United States was seen as an ally to democracy. In most Islamic countries, however, the United States has been seen as an ally to dictatorship and foreign military occupation. So if Washington embraced oppositions groups too warmly, this could work against the public acceptance of these groups. At the same time, given the serious challenges facing pro-democracy groups struggling against the powerful autocratic regimes in the region, many activists will likely continue to look to the United States and other Western powers for, at minimum, moral and diplomatic support The United States can apply diplomatic pressure to free political prisoners, promote the right to free assembly, and support other means of creating the political space for nonviolent pro-democracy movements to grow. Western leaders who avoid messianic and self-righteous rhetoric when talking about democracy, pursue policies that neither practice nor condone violations of international humanitarian law, and directly communicate with and respect the wishes of nonviolent activists struggling against their autocratic rulers could help to rectify the historically counter-productive policies that have for so long hurt the cause of democracy in the region.

But it’s not clear that the United States even wants greater democracy in the Islamic world. For example, regarding Tunisia, the U.S. government was silent during the first weeks of protests despite savage repression by the government. Less than a week after the uprising began, Congress voted for an addition $12 million in security assistance to Ben Ali’s regime. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship. By early January, the State Department began issuing mild criticism of the Ben Ali regime for firing live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators but was equally willing to blame the pro-democracy activists. While the movement was largely nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to characterize it by its most unruly components. He stated that the Obama administration was “concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions.”

On January 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia.” She insisted that the United States was “not taking sides” and that she would “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. (One can only imagine the reaction if she had similarly insisted the United States was “not taking sides” in the face of the similar recent pro-democracy uprising in Iran and Burma or if previous secretaries of state had expressed such neutrality regarding pro-democracy struggles in Serbia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.)

Three days later, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Islamic world since he became president. He condemned the regime’s violence and applauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard.” He further called on the Tunisian government “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. Although it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a last-minute show of support to the winning side, this shift indicates the significance of what happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events influencing the Arab street, the Arab street is influencing policies emanating from Washington.

Indeed, at the point where a movement embarks upon a strategy of large-scale nonviolent action, there is little foreign governments can do to help or hinder its chances of success, other than pressure the regime to limit its repression. Large bureaucratic governments accustomed to projecting political power through military force or elite diplomatic channels tend to have little understanding of, or appreciation for, nonviolent action or any other kind of mass popular struggle or the complex, internal political dynamics of a given country necessary to create the broad coalition capable of ousting the incumbent authoritarian government.

Unlike changes of regime historically promoted by foreign governments during the colonial and much of the post-colonial period, which have tended to be violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority, nonviolent “people power” movements make change through empowering pro-democratic majorities. This serves as yet another reason why the Iranian regime’s claims that the United States is somehow responsible for the Green Revolution are so ludicrous. Every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and that the current political system was incapable of redressing injustice.

As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy in Islamic countries comes from civil society rather than from foreign governments. The latter deserve neither credit nor blame for the growing use of nonviolent resistance movements in Islamic countries. As the Tunisian uprising demonstrated, the best hope for freedom in the Islamic world comes not from sanctimonious lecturing from Washington and certainly not from foreign intervention–but from the people themselves.

ROTC policy on Wikileaks threatens academic freedom

In my more than 15 years teaching at the University of San Francisco, I have found ROTC cadets to be among my favorite students, most of them being unusually bright, motivated, disciplined and a pleasure to work with. Indeed, I have felt honored to teach them.

It was with great consternation, therefore, to learn that, according to a memo sent to ROTC programs at the University of San Francisco and other colleges and universities last month, they have effectively been prohibited from completing any assignments that professors may make involving any material released through WikiLeaks.
According to a Dec. 8 memo from Col. Charles M. Evans, commanding officer of the 8th Brigade, U.S. Army Cadet Command, “using the classified information found on WikiLeaks for research papers, presentations, etc. is prohibited.” A follow-up memo from the cadet commander at the University of San Francisco advised against even talking about it, precluding ROTC students from taking part in classroom discussions regarding WikiLeaks material.

The rationale appears to be that downloading, reading, referencing or discussing WikiLeaks material could jeopardize receiving a security clearance. This has little rational basis, however, since much of the material was apparently made available by a U.S. Army private who had access to it and — for better or worse — this material is now widely available publicly.

It strains credulity as to what harm would be causedby cadets viewing material easily accessible to everyone else, including America’s enemies.

Whatever the reason, this puts both professors and students in a dilemma.

Those of us teaching courses in such fields as constitutional law, U.S. foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and media studies are considering using WikiLeaks material in the coming semester. This means that if any of us were to give such an assignment, ROTC students would be forced to choose between not completing it or putting their careers in jeopardy.

I could make special accommodations for ROTC cadets. I could offer an alternative reading assignment. I could not reduce participation grades if the students did not take part in a discussion. I could excuse them from viewing a documentary that might include film clips, images or other proscribed contents. I could write up special quizzes or exams.

However, in doing so, I would effectively be allowing the military to control part of my curriculum. This raises sensitive issues regarding academic freedom. If the military can effectively tell its cadets to refuse to complete assignments by civilian professors, it sets a very dangerous precedent.

Indeed, if they can prohibit ROTC cadets from reading material from WikiLeaks, what would stop them from prohibiting students from, for example, reading material critical of U.S. military actions in Iraq or Vietnam?
The University of San Francisco administration appears to be taking this threat against academic freedom seriously and has asked for clarifications from ROTC commanders and others in the federal government. Thus far, however, nothing has been forthcoming.

There are plenty of thoughtful and diverse opinions at the University of San Francisco and elsewhere regarding the legality, ethics and wisdom of releasing classified material via WikiLeaks. Since the material is now in the public domain, however, the U.S. military has no right to dictate how it might be used in the classroom. Indeed, this kind of interference has no place in a democracy.

Tunisia’s Democratic Revolution

Whether the overthrow of the corrupt and autocratic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia in a mass civil insurrection will lead to a stable, just and democratic order remains to be seen, but the dramatic events in that North African country underscore a critical point: Democracy in the Arab world will not come from foreign military intervention or sanctimonious lecturing from Western capitals, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While the rioting and other spontaneous violence would seem to differentiate these recent events from the overwhelmingly nonviolent movements that brought down dictators in the Philippines, Serbia, Poland, Chile, and elsewhere, it was the nonviolent aspects of the uprising that proved most decisive. The general strike, the peaceful protests, the refusal to obey curfew orders, the explosion of alternative media, and other acts of nonviolent resistance were far more critical in the downfall of the regime than the violent mob actions, which make for such exciting imagery in the international media, but which were not representative of the movement as a whole.

While the movement was impressive in the way that it was able to transform inchoate populist anger into regime change, effectively employing mass-based tactics to destabilize an autocratic government does not necessarily lead to democracy. Recent history has shown that in such situations, the chances of bringing about a genuine democratic transformation are increased if it comes from a more protracted movement with a comprehensive strategic vision, which seeks to represent the widest range of society and maintains a more conscious nonviolent discipline. The lack of a clear, cohesive leadership group may be partly responsible for the chaos that has followed Ben Ali’s departure. Still, the movement was impressive regarding the way it eventually encompassed diverse elements, which transcended the nation’s religious and political divides, the level of tactical coordination between groups and the way they were able to bring together people of all ages and educational levels out onto the streets. And they did so in the face of severe repression; more than 100 people were killed by government forces over the past four weeks.

Demonstrations began on December 17. Originally led by unemployed youth, the protests were joined a week and half later by professional groups and trade unions, which many thought had been successfully co-opted by the regime. These peaceful demonstrations were violently broken up by security forces as well. On January 6, a general strike by lawyers was 95 percent successful. The following day, the regime arrested a number of prominent journalists, bloggers, activists and musicians. Over the next three days, dozens of protesters were shot dead by security forces, and the nation’s universities were ordered closed by the regime. On January 13, as protests gathered momentum, Ben Ali announced unprecedented reforms and promised not to seek re-election in 2014, but these concessions failed to quell the insurrection. Indeed, the trade union federation issued a formal call for a general strike. The following day, the government imposed a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” As thousands defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and the general strike effectively shut down the country, Ben Ali fled on January 14.

One important aspect of what some have labeled the “Jasmine Revolution” is the role of the Internet. Ben Ali had imposed some of the heaviest press censorship in the Arab world, leading to an unprecedented level of reliance on the Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Whenever the government tried to block access, ways were found to bypass the censors. (Among the signs at demonstrations was “Freedom From 404” – the Internet error code for “File Not Found.”) Hacktivists retaliated by jamming government web sites. While it is important not to overemphasize this aspect – it was people on the streets who made the uprising possible – it is a reminder of the possibilities available for social movements even in countries under repressive regimes.

With unemployment as high as 30 percent among youth, including those with college educations, frustrations at the economic situation were a major focus of the grievances. While the economic issues were clearly important, they were directly related to the lack of democracy. As the US Embassy acknowledged some months ago, “many civil society activists speculate that corruption – particularly that of First Lady Leila (Trabelsi) Ben Ali and the broader Trabelsi clan – is the fundamental impediment to meaningful political liberalization.”

As when the Iranian regime was faced with a similar mass uprising after the apparently-stolen Iranian presidential election in 2009, the Tunisian regime blamed the uprising as the work of extremists and foreigners. This was clearly a homegrown affair, however, with a strong cultural component. Tunisian artists and musicians played a seminal role, including the popular rapper, Hamada ben Amor, also known as El General, who was arrested last week in response to a widely-circulated anti-government song and video.

The chaos which has taken place since Ben Ali fled the country could be a bad sign of things to come. There are reports that certain security forces loyal to the ousted dictator are largely responsible for the burning and looting after Ben Ali fled the country, thereby giving the Army an excuse to assert its power in the streets that, until recently, were controlled by civilians. It is unlikely that the Tunisian people will allow this to happen, however, having tasted their new-found power. In the best case scenario, this empowerment from having overthrown a dictator ensconced in the presidential palace for 23 years could lead to a dramatic growth in civil society and civic engagement in a society which had known little but authoritarian rule since independence, and, prior to that, an often oppressive French colonialism.

The Unhelpful US Role

In the course of some similar civil insurrections, like those in Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a US ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Tuesday prior to the regime’s overthrow expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the US is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers. Clinton acknowledged the economic problems besetting Tunisia and its neighbors by noting that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

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In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. The US has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector. Adopting this neoliberal model also grossly exacerbated inequality between the coastal areas and the interior and southern regions, where the December protests originated.

A 2009 State Department cable recently released by WikiLeaks described Tunisia as a “police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems” and that “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor.” The country’s elites were described as almost Mafia-like in their complex networks of control, ripping off enormous wealth from almost every sector of the economy, and a series of WikiLeaks documents vividly described the extravagant lifestyle and related egregious behavior by the families of the president and his in-laws.

Some American pundits have tried to portray the uprising as the “WikiLeaks Revolution,” implying that the leaks somehow sparked the revolution. However, none of this was news to the Tunisian people. Indeed, as the US ambassador put it in one of these same documents following a lavish dinner hosted by the president’s son-in-law and heir apparent, “The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali’s family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.” More importantly, this seems to be yet another effort by Westerners to deny agency to an Arab people who bravely faced down the tear gas and bullets for their freedom.

At least Obama’s appointees in the embassy had a more realistic grasp of the situation than under the Bush administration. In preparation for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in 2008, the US ambassador spoke in glowing terms about Ben Ali’s dictatorship. A memo read, “Tunisia styles itself ‘a country that works,'” adding, “While Tunisians grumble privately about corruption by the first lady’s family, there is an abiding appreciation for Ben Ali’s success in steering his country clear of the instability and violence that have plagued Tunisia’s neighbors.” According to Bush officials, “the lack of Tunisian political activism, or even awareness, seems to be a more serious impediment. While frustration with the First Family’s corruption may eventually lead to increased demands for political liberalization, it does not yet appear to be heralding the end of the Ben Ali era.”

Apparently, neither administration shared its concern over the regime’s persistent pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations. Indeed, Tunis became the home of the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a regional office for the State Department’s democratic reform program. US policy was justified in the name of the “war on terror,” even though radical Islamist movements are weaker in Tunisia than in practically any other Arab country. Ben Ali’s regime assisted the United States in “extraordinary rendition,” where suspected Islamist radicals captured by US forces or kidnapped by intelligence services were brought to Tunisia for torture. Tunisia was also one of the governments more willing to cooperate with the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in its efforts to extend US military operations and military relations with African countries.

As the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid in the foreign appropriation bills. Tear gas canisters lobbed at pro-democracy demonstrators were inscribed with the words “Made in USA,” a reminder of whose side Washington was on in the struggle against the dictatorship.

After official silence following more than two weeks of protests and savage repression by the government, the State Department began to issue some mildly-worded rebukes over the police attacks against demonstrators. Even though most of the protests had been nonviolent, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley chose to represent the movement as its most unruly components, stating that the Obama administration was “concerned about government actions, but we’re also concerned about actions by the demonstrators, those who do not have peaceful intentions.”

US policy began to shift as the pro-democracy movement gained momentum, however. Just two days after the interview in which she appeared to back the Ben Ali regime, Clinton took a more proactive stance at a meeting in Qatar, where she noted that “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order” and called for “political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives.”

Then, on Friday, as Ben Ali was fleeing the country, President Obama came forward with the most pointed declaration in support of democracy in the Arab world since he became president:

“I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

“As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia’s future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.”

There has long been a sense of fatalism in the Arab world that they are simply passive victims of outside forces. While it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a matter of throwing support to the winning side at the last minute, this shift is indicative of the significance of what has happened in Tunisia: rather than Washington controlling the course of events impacting the Arab street, the Arab street is impacting policies emanating from Washington.

A Precedent?

All this inevitably raises the question as to whether Tunisia will spark pro-democratic contagion throughout the region. Tunisia’s small size; relatively large, educated middle class; absence of a strong right-wing Islamist influence; and other factors make the country unique in a number of ways. Certainly, popular pro-democratic movements in Eastern Europe and Latin American swept through those regions in rapid succession in the 1980s, sweeping entrenched dictatorial regimes from power. Vicarious fascination with the Tunisian events in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and other US-backed authoritarian regimes in the region is indicative of the hope, whether realistic or not, that democratic forces in these country could emulate their Arab brethren in Tunisia. Mohammed al-Maskati, a blogger in Bahrain, Twittered, “It actually happened in my lifetime . An Arab nation woke up and said ‘enough.'”

Despite some recent claims in US media outlets to the contrary, this is not the first time popular protests have brought down an Arab or North African government. In Sudan, in both 1964 and 1985, popular, largely nonviolent, mass protests brought down dictators in those countries. The 1985 overthrow of the US-backed dictator Jafaar Numeiry resulted in Sudan becoming the most democratic government in the Arab world for the next four years, only to be tragically cut short in a 1989 military coup. In Mali in 1991, a nonviolent revolution overthrew the Traore dictatorship despite the shootings of hundreds of peaceful protesters. Even though Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, it has remained the most democratic county in northern or western Africa ever since.

The people of Tunisia have demonstrated their power to oust a dictatorship. The coming period will tell if they can actually build a democracy.

U.S. Backs Tunisian Dictatorship in Face of Pro-Democracy Uprising

The regime, U.S.-backed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been the target of a nationwide popular uprising in recent weeks, which neither shooting into crowds of unarmed demonstrators nor promised reforms has thus far quelled. Whether this unarmed revolt results in the regime’s downfall remains to be seen. In recent decades, largely nonviolent insurrections such as this have toppled corrupt authoritarian rulers in the Philippines, Serbia, Bolivia, Ukraine, the Maldives, Georgia, Mali, Nepal and scores of other countries and have seriously challenged repressive regimes in Iran, Burma and elsewhere.

On the one hand, the Tunisian opposition seems rather disorganized and the protests largely spontaneous. The lack of a stricter nonviolent discipline at some of the demonstrations, which at times have deteriorated into full-scale riots, has given the regime the political space for increased repression. At the same time, the dissatisfaction with the regime is widespread and growing.

In the course of some civil insurrections, like Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a U.S. ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has instead expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the U.S. is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers.

In addition, as the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.

Along with limited political freedom and government accountability, the poor economic situation in Tunisia has been the major focus of the protests, particularly among unemployed educated youth. Clinton acknowledged this issue in noting that “one of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

In reality, however, Tunisia — more than almost any country in the region — has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released Wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a “kleptocracy.” The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Rather than anti-American extremism in the Arab world being a result of hostility towards “our freedoms,” it is such policies backing such corrupt authoritarian regimes as Tunisia which have alienated so many young Arabs from the United States. As John F. Kennedy once warned, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Pro-Democracy Uprising Fails to Keep Washington From Backing Tunisian Dictatorship

The regime U.S.-backed Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been the target of a nationwide popular uprising in recent weeks, which neither shooting into crowds of unarmed demonstrators nor promised reforms has thus far quelled. Whether this unarmed revolt results in the regime’s downfall remains to be seen. In recent decades, largely nonviolent insurrections such as this have toppled corrupt authoritarian rulers in the Philippines, Serbia, Bolivia, Ukraine, the Maldives, Georgia, Mali, Nepal and scores of other countries and have seriously challenged repressive regimes in Iran, Burma and elsewhere.

On the one hand, the Tunisian opposition seems rather disorganized and the protests largely spontaneous. The lack of a stricter nonviolent discipline at some of the demonstrations, which at times have deteriorated into full-scale riots, has given the regime the political space for increased repression. At the same time, the dissatisfaction with the regime is widespread and growing.

In the course of some civil insurrections, like Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a U.S. ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has instead expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the U.S. is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers.

In addition, as the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.

Along with limited political freedom and government accountability, the poor economic situation in Tunisia has been the major focus of the protests, particularly among unemployed educated youth. Clinton acknowledged this issue in noting that “One of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released Wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a “kleptocracy.” The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Rather than anti-American extremism in the Arab world being a result of hostility towards “our freedoms,” it is such policies backing such corrupt authoritarian regimes as Tunisia which have alienated so many young Arabs from the United States. As John F. Kennedy once warned, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”