President Obama made it clear that, unlike Bush, he was not interested in imposing a change in governance systems from outside. Obama’s senior Middle East adviser was Dennis Ross, a staunch realist. Even those who have a strong position on human rights and the responsibility to defend them overseas, such as Samantha Power (at the time a staff member of the National Security Council and currently US ambassador to the UN), were pragmatic enough to know that any such intervention should not undermine hard US interests.
Dances on quick sands: The US and the Arab Spring (Part 4)
Tuesday ,17 December 2013
Ultimately, Obama and his administration desired democratisation in the Middle East but did not indicate that the Arab potentates would pay any price for maintaining dictatorships. Even the promises he made in his Cairo speech on funding technological development and expanding exchange programmes for students and a new “corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries” were not kept.
In August 2010, the White House commissioned a study on the stability of Arab regimes, friends and foes alike. The conclusion went along the gradual democratisation camp line, calling for pushing reform and working more with civil society and people inside the government who support reform. The study concluded that most regimes would resort to repression to deal with unrest and that pressure on them to reform does not work. Tunisia, the first domino to fall in the Arab Spring, was not even considered in the study.
The report's main conclusion, according to David Sanger in his book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, was that “the older generation of strongmen leaders would have to die off before the region would experience any significant political opening.” The study did not lead to any concrete decisions or policy changes. The atmosphere around the study was relaxed. After all, many in Washington DC believed that the “the Arab world moved at a glacial pace,” as BBC journalist Kim Ghattas said.
The Tunisian uprising and the quick departure of long time autocrat Ben Ali took observers by surprise. There had long been enough economic and political grievances to justify popular discontent, but Tunisia had become one of the most effective police states in the region and observers did not expect any political changes from the bottom up.
The US public reaction to the widening unrest in Tunisia after vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire 17 December 2010, to protest police persecution, was too little and too late. Washington could not formulate policy before even the whole episode was over and Ben Ali fled the country 14 January 2011, as it lacked leverage and information and could not guess how deep and massive the popular anger was and where it was leading the country.
The conflagration of public protests gradually engulfed the whole country in the days following Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Some thought it would be like the earlier riots in Gafsa in 2008, started by mining workers, unsupported by wider social forces and quickly suppressed by the massive coercive machinary of the state. This is also what the US government thought at the time, according to one senior administration official. The quick conclusion in the last few days of 2010 in the State Department was that “the government would quell it,” a former State Department official who was still in service at the time told me.
The US machine (intelligence and foreign affairs) never predicted a popular revolt in Tunisia, let alone a successful one. And even if it had, it had no real leverage to intervene and no time to build leverage. Two full weeks after the protests erupted and a few days before Ben Ali fled the country, US government spokespeople still had no clear public line on what is going on in Tunisia. Not that the US did not know how corrupt and repressive Ben Ali’s regime had been. They knew and reflected this as much as possible in a diplomatic language that avoided blaming the regime directly or forcefully in the annual State Department human rights reports.
A few months before the septuagenarian dictator fell, the whole world knew what US officials really thought about Ben Ali who was otherwise paraded as a success story, when Wikileaks published diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tunis back to Washington DC. They had nothing new compared to foreign media reports on the corruption of the Tunisian ruling family, but Tunisians did not know the Americans knew it too. And when they read the leaked cables, they thought the Americans no longer supported the regime. US journalist Sanger said this brought the middle class out as “they thought that without the US, Ben Ali was very vulnerable.”
One Tunisian activist put it in a more pungent way: “For religious people, nothing happens without the will of God. For secular people, nothing happens without the will of the US.”
One day before Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Secretary of State Clinton hedged her bets in a speech in the tiniest but richest country in the Middle East: Qatar. Speaking in Doha on 13 January 2011, she said that “in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.” She did not mention the ongoing developments in Tunisia. The administration was clearly unprepared and was taken by surprise because, though they were aware of the repressive and corrupt policies of the Tunisian regime and other governments which were sinking in this “quick sand,” they thought these regimes, especially in Tunisia, were too strong to allow any popular revolt to topple them.
Even after Ben Ali left and almost one day into an unprecedented massive protest in Cairo, Obama stood to address Congress on 25 January to say that “the United States stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” Egyptian democracy supporters had to wait a number of days and see hundreds killed before Washington publicly sided with them.
The US government always thought it had a binary choice between “Mubarak's old military apparatchiks” and the Muslim Brotherhood. It had thought about such a stark choice in tabletop scenario exercises in the State Department, but never as a distinct possibility. Thus, it was genuinely surprised, according to a senior state department official at the time. “In Egypt, we thought it was one of these protests,” she told me. But it became quickly “apparent that there is a new level of escalation.”
Another former official took a few days to appreciate the depth of anger and the tectonic shifts in the Egyptian body politic, believing even through 28 January, when the whole police apparatus collapsed throughout Egypt, that Mubarak still could survive if he compromised a bit. “We had this long relationship with Mubarak ... if he did make concessions … [the protests] would have fizzled,” a former US diplomat who served in the region told me.
This possibility of saving Mubarak seems to have controlled the thinking of the administration until 1 February, when Mubarak made a vacuous speech with no concrete proposals to break the deadlock. A former top national security official with whom I spoke on 3 February said: “If I can advise Mubarak now, I would tell him to make some concessions, appoint a new cabinet and then in a few months crush the opposition.” Sensing he might have gone a bit too far, he stopped and said: “I am saying that as an academic who studied dictatorships for a long time and not because I want it to happen.”
But like many other administration officials from the old realist school, this retired official saw an irreconcilable tension between democratising the governance systems in the region and primary strategic interests. He wished for democracy to reign in the region, but thought the transition could be too costly to bear and quite unpredictable. Secondly, he thought the political culture in the region was anathema to democracy. The people are not ready for it because “the people here [do not] have the culture of democracy” as late Egyptian spy chief Omar Suleiman told ABC TV on 6 February 2011, a mere five days before he and Mubarak were swept off the political scene by these very people.
Sadly enough, this is the same rhetoric that reared its head again in Egypt this summer among, out of all people, liberal intellectuals.