The Arabs are a patient lot. Twenty years after a wave of democracy swept through Eastern Europe, Arabs are still waiting for their own. In the past few weeks a series of setbacks have pushed their dreams even further away. They haven’t lost hope though, as the latest protests in Tunisia have demonstrated.
Flash back two years to the days after the US president Barack Obama took office. Then, there was a distinct air of optimism that things were going to change. Mr Obama appointed George Mitchell, the veteran US diplomat credited with negotiating Northern Ireland’s peace settlement, to bring peace to the bleak Middle East. Things look even bleaker today. Illegal Israeli settlements are not only booming but are growing at a rate much faster than ever before. Mr Mitchell has logged many hours flying in between capitals but has had few successes.
The march towards greater popular representation in the Arab world has not just stagnated since Mr Obama took office, it has regressed. Last year the Obama administration cut aid for democracy promotion in Egypt by as much as 50 per cent. A few months later, Egypt, the most populous Arab country, held what were considered to be the most widely rigged parliamentary elections in recent memory. The US government said it was “disappointed” with the results.
Disappointed is a small word to use for a country that funds the Egyptian government with as much as $1.55 billion a year. Contrast what has happened in the last two years in Egypt with what occurred under the former US president George W Bush’s watch, where Egypt held its freest elections yet. The Muslim Brotherhood movement won as much as 20 per cent of the parliamentary seats. They won none in the latest poll.
The reactions of the Obama administration to the indefinite postponement of elections in some Arab countries, outright vote rigging and brutal crushing of demonstrations, in others is telling. America’s rebuke of the Yemeni leader’s grandiose plans for a presidency for life last week were to urge him to “delay parliamentary action and to return to the negotiating table”. On the other hand the Obama administration awarded the Yemeni government with an economic aid package of roughly $150 million in 2010 in addition to a military package this year in excess of $200 million. It’s ironic that this very equipment could be used against demonstrators who may take to the streets to oppose a lifetime presidency in Yemen.
But it is unfair to lay the blame for the lack of democracy in the Arab world completely on the shoulders of the United States. Arabs themselves play a major role in what becomes of their societies. Still, it is not easy to stand up to a dictator whose cutting-edge military equipment is a gift from the good offices of the president of the United States.
A favourite pastime of Arabs during the Bush era was to count his ills. There were plenty of them to mention without referring to the human catastrophe that was Iraq. However, Mr Bush exerted considerable pressure on Arab states, which allowed for elections in many places. So free was the vote in the Palestinian territories, for instance, that Hamas won more votes than Fatah, with voters taking the party to task for its corruption.
When Mr Bush was in office, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the only Arab countries never to have held elections, allowed for some of their citizens to participate in municipal and parliamentary polls respectively. The terms of the elected individuals have expired but there has been no announcement yet about when elections will be held again.
What US policy makers must realise is that the formula of “aid for stability” has only been working on the surface. Turning a blind eye to certain practices by Arab governments has a far more pervasive impact of stifling genuine reform and freedom for the people of the Arab world. Sentiments towards allies of Arab dictators, including the US, are festering.
The US administration’s silence around the Sidi Bouzid protests in Tunisia was only broken this week, several weeks after protests erupted. These are secular, non-religious protests that aren’t backed by any foreign entity. They are merely an expression of a people’s desire to unshackle themselves from a regime in power since the 1980s.
The visit of the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to the region that begins today, her second in six weeks, includes meetings with civil society leaders who were overlooked in the past. Perhaps this step heralds a new and much needed change in policy by the Obama administration that would put the interests of citizens on a par with the region’s governments.
But taken as a whole, Mr Obama’s policies have allowed for an overall regression in democracy in the Arab world. The US government’s complacency was read as a green light for Arab governments to suppress free speech, while denying their citizens basic rights such as voting and protesting.
It’s high time for fresh faces and fresh ideas from the White House to deal with outdated policies that have clearly failed in effecting a genuine change in the Middle East. The setbacks to greater popular representation in the Arab world seen in the first two years of the Obama administration need not be repeated in the second two years.
Mr Obama, it’s time for a rethink.
This article was originally published in The National on January 9, 2011.