Friday, March 4, 2011

Tunisia and Egypt Prove the Neo-conservatives Wrong

Is it possible that the Neoconservative theories that George W. Bush and his gang implemented by invading Iraq are coming to fruition? They theorized that after deposing Sadaam Hussein the Iraqi people would rise up and create a democratic government that would protect their rights and open up the economy to all. One Arab democracy would then inspire other Arab people to rise up against dictators. Instead, Iraq has suffered eight years of sectarian violence, government gridlock, and economic stagnation on a bumpy road to what no one is sure will become a stable democracy or even a unified nation once the U.S. withdraws completely. Iran is poised to end up with more influence in Iraq than the U.S.

Iraq may have served a purpose as an example for reasonable people in Arab countries with dictators of what to avoid in demanding change. Like Iraq, for years, Tunisia and Egypt have been faux democracies, one party states led by a president for life. As American allies (as Iraq was until Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990), their leaders have benefited from American largesse by moderating Arab extremism toward Israel, and in Egypt’s case, maintaining peaceful relations with Israel. Mubarak has maintained power with an iron fist toward any political rivalry and against any sign of Muslim extremism. His police have used tactics including torture to maintain absolute power, but thirty years of a “state of emergency,” has finally come to an end by popular demand.
The protestors in Egypt and Tunisia have included broad swaths of the populace. They are not led by Muslim extremists, and their anger has been directed against the dictator and his police rather than Israel and the United States, anger that too often Arab dictators stoke for their own benefit. Unlike in Iraq, where Sadaam, our ally against Iran, had created an elite sectarian Sunni army to repress the majority Shiite and minority Kurds, the armies of both Egypt and Tunisia have stepped forward as defenders of the people against police forces that were viewed as the repressive arms of government.

Should these anti-dictator movements result in more democratic governments it is far from clear that they will be friendly to America and American interests let alone be willing to seek peaceful relations with Israel. And should they spark similar movements in Jordan, Yemen, or other Arab states with greater fundamentalist anti-Western constituencies, the Middle East may start looking more like Iran than Turkey, which  has a strong tradition of secular government.

President Obama has walked a tightrope in his response to the situation. To anyone who criticizes him for supporting Mubarak until now, you must give equal blame to every president going back to Jimmy Carter. Every one has pragmatically supported the Egyptian government while talking about the need to implement democratic reforms. At least Obama gave a stirring speech in Cairo in which he called on all Arab countries to implement democratic reforms. Combined with the evidence that he is keeping his word by pulling American troops out of Iraq, this may have something to do with the lack of anti-Americanism evident in these uprisings.

It seems our government is trying to support a peaceful transition to democracy, understanding that there is a long way to go from deposing a tyrant to full democracy. Mubarak ceded power first to a newly appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, former security chief, and then the top brass of the army. Egypt’s military is almost as much an economic force as a defense force, a secondary effect of peace with Israel which caused the Egyptian army to find creative ways of keeping it’s vast military employed. The army controls large swaths of various industries and resources: water, agriculture, gasoline, even automobiles.

Protestors should keep up the pressure, but let the country return to normalcy as the new leadership tries to design and implement a new constitution. The Egyptian people seem to have set their hopes on the army to carry out reforms and allow free and fair elections, but they should follow Ronald Reagan’s advice to “trust, but verify.” The people of Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated to the world they are capable of peaceful protest and deserving of the opportunity to elect governments that will maintain their security while allowing them the full freedom of representative government and human rights. They may achieve democratic reform more quickly and with less loss of life and economic hardship than the “regime change” George W. Bush sought through preemptive war. Let us hope that these peaceful revolutions result in true democracies that play a role as moderating influences in the Arab world.

first published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, February 26, 2011 

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