Arab nations: New governments, same story

While slow to react to the Arab Spring, US diplomats are working to make sure the region remains under their hegemony.

Egyptian protesters
While initially silent during Egypt’s revolution, the US is now looking to find a means of transitioning the new government into the US-led international order [GALLO/GETTY]

The first wave of Arab revolutions is entering its second phase. Along with dismantling the structures of political despotism, they have embarked on the arduous journey toward genuine change and democratisation.

On the opposite side, the US is seeking to recover from the initial state of disarray and confusion generated by its loss of key allies, and to define a roadmap for the new age of Arab revolutions. It had been thrust aside by a roaring Arab street that struck a deadly blow to its doctrine of stability. After watching the pitch helplessly, it is now determined to force its way back in to dictate its course and outcome. Finally, Washington has come to swallow the bitter fact that the world has changed, and that its old friends and partners are no more. What had been a challenge to its power and authority is now “an historic opportunity”, as Obama put it in his speech last week.

Yet this is not an opportunity for the people who have risen up, but for the force that has aided and abetted their jailers, and ensured they were kept in shackles for decades in the name of political realism. It is its “opportunity”, the chance for its decision makers and bureaucrats sitting in their Washington boardrooms to fashion the region’s present and future, just as they did its past. In Obama’s words, “to pursue the world as it should be” – not according to the yearnings and aspirations of its people –  but to America’s cold calculations. 

US interests

And how is this new world to be built? The guiding model is to be found in Eastern Europe and the colour revolutions. In short, by using American soft power and public diplomacy to reshape the socio-political scene in the region, the aim is to transform the people’s revolutions into America’s revolutions.

The centre of gravity has shifted from the streets – with its uncontrollable, unpredictable, and dangerous rhythm – to the hands of the powerful elites. So, back we are to the old game of engineered elites: docile, domesticated, at the service of US strategies (consciously and sub-consciously).

But, this is being stretched to new fronts: the strategy is to not only confined to the classical friends left over from the old era, but to also contain new forces produced by the revolution, which had long been marginalised and rejected by the US.

“We must… broaden our engagement… so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people… [and] provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned,” said President Obama. To this end the US has doubled its fund aimed at “protecting civil society groups”, raising its budget from $1.5m, to 3.4m.  

The targets are not only the usual neoliberal elements, but include the activists who spearheaded the protest movements, and mainstream Islamists. For example, the last few months have seen an escalation of American public diplomacy efforts in Egypt and Tunisia by the US government and institutions close to it. This has included programmes aimed at Arab youth leaders such as the Leaders for Arab Democracy programme sponsored by the Middle East Partnership Initiative, as well as many conferences and seminars such as the one hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington last month.

A number of Arab activists were invited to the Project, including prominent Egyptian democracy and human rights activist Esraa Abdel Fattah. Meetings have also been held between high ranking US officials and the Muslim Brotherhood last month in Cairo, while Ennahda’s deputy chairman has recently returned from a visit to Washington to “discuss democratic transition in Tunisia”. 

Washington hopes that these rising forces may be stripped of their ideological opposition to American hegemony and turned into pragmatists fully integrated into the existing US-led international order. Dogma is not a problem, as long as they agree to operate within parameters delineated for them, if they play the game without questioning its rules.  

Economic containment

But containment and integration are not only political but economic, too. They are to be pursued through free markets and trade partnerships in the name of economic reform. Plans “to stabilise and modernise” the Tunisian and Egyptian economies were announced at this week’s G8 summit. These include a $40bn dollar aid package that would drown these economies deeper in debt, a two million dollar facility to support private investment “modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall”, the “Deauville Partnership” to expand political and economic ties with North Africa and the Middle East, and an extension of the mandate of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to cover the nations of the southern Mediterranean. As usual, investment and aid are conditional on adoption of the American neoliberal economic model in the name of reform and modernisation, and on further binding economies to US and European markets under the banner of “trade integration”.  

One wonders what would be left of the Arab revolutions amidst infiltrated civil societies, domesticated political parties, and dependent economies. That is precisely the post-revolution Middle East being concocted by the White House today, carved up with the chisel of the economy, money, and public diplomacy – not to mention its firepower and military bases scattered across the region and at its borders.  

The Obama administration may succeed in infiltrating Arab organisations, but its bid to reproduce the Eastern European scenario in the region is little more than wishful thinking. While Prague and Warsaw looked to the US for inspiration in its liberation struggle, Cairo, Tunis, and Sana’a see the US as the problem and chief impediment to their emancipation and progress. To Arabs, the US is a force of occupation draped in a thin cloak of democracy and human rights. 

No one could have offered stronger evidence of such a view than Obama himself. He began his Middle East speech with eulogies to freedom and the equality of all men, and ended it with talk of the “Jewishness of Israel”. Effectively, Israel has been denying the citizenship rights of 20 per cent of its Arab inhabitants and right of return of six million Palestinian refugees.

In vain, the US tries to reconcile the irreconcilable and preach democracy, while occupying and aiding in occupation. But in a region that forms one interconnected geographic, cultural, and political sphere, you cannot liberate Egyptians, Syrians, or Tunisians, without liberating Palestinians.

Soumaya Ghannoushi is a freelance writer specialising in the history of European Perceptions of Islam. Her work has appeared in a number of leading British papers including the Guardian and the Independent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.