America has to rethink its diplomacy in the Middle East. The revolution that started softly in a minor country, Tunisia, has now overtaken Egypt, a behemoth in the Arab world, and threatens to spread like wildfire to the whole region: Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China, where a so-called Jasmine revolution was immediately squelched!
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn’t yet hit other dictatorial regimes, such as Saudi Arabia or Syria. It may hit there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Libya, and no wonder. Libya stands apart from the others; so far, it’s the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war.
Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up. Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt and with Jordan no longer looks so solid. Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new regime, all the options are open, including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians are said to dislike it.
What about the US? Obama, in line with America’s vision of itself as the champion of democracy, has come out very clearly on the side of the protesters. So has Europe (albeit a little belatedly). There has been near-universal condemnation of the bloodshed in Libya, with the notable exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador who have sided with Qaddafi. So far, the UN estimates more than 1,000 have died and 100,000 have fled the country. As might be expected, this has led to cries for sanctions, with a UN Security Council resolution slamming the usual sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: asset freezing, interdiction to travel, arms sales embargo, and perhaps what is more important, opening the way to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC), charging him with crimes against humanity. But that would require an investigation in Libya, something that hasn’t yet been set up.
Some, like Senator John McCain, even want military intervention. But that’s unlikely. The internal situation in Libya would have to degenerate a great deal more to justify an intervention. Why? Because the international system, the United Nations, is firmly based on a principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of member countries. If you jump into Libya because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right, but countries like China or Russia, for obvious reasons, will not appreciate nor support you. The proposal of a no-fly zone over Libya is more likely to be accepted.
So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Libya and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia, which continues to be the main oil player, with 12% of world production. The Saudis don’t like what is happening in Bahrein either; first, it is happening on their doorstep, and second, they don’t want the Sunni monarchy there to lose out to the Shia majority.
It would seem that democratic change won’t go either very far or very fast. Leaders have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, but that’s only the first step. To actually bring about real democracy is a long, complex process. As to other places, like Libya, where credible opposition leaders have yet to emerge, it is difficult to imagine what could happen next.
So can one expect a sea change in American policy in response to so-called Arab revolutions? I don’t think so. Obama seems to have played his cards well so far. But he is treading a mine field. He can only come on the side of street protesters when it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy, as in Tunisia and Egypt.
There are, however, a number of countries where the situation is not that clear. For example in Yemen, where considerable pro-government manifestations have taken place in response to the protests (but the situation could change there, too). In such cases, American reaction has to be more subdued. Then there’s a series of manifestations that are not real calls for a regime change but only protests against specific conditions, mainly unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, such as in Iraq and Oman. Last but not least, it is not in the American interests to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia, who have been long-standing allies in the region.
One thing is certain: these are not revolutions inspired by Al Qaeda-type violence or religion. They are classic middle class revolutions, led by the “facebook generation:” young, savvy people, often with higher education but with few job prospects, once out of the university.
How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously going to be a long, winding road. Arabs all look to the Turkish model: a largely islamic country that has made it, successfully combining democracy and capitalism with a moderate, liberal version of Islam. But it took 60 years for Turkey to get there, and its starting point under the iron guidance of Ataturk was somewhat different: it was a military, secular republic. Can the Turkish model be replicated? Probably.
What can America and Europe do to help? Not much beyond providing technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and giving aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs. Easier said than done: so far, few aid efforts have managed to replicate the success of the Marshall Plan; and in any case, they can’t be even started if the countries in question do not request help…