Governments throughout the Middle East are responding to pro-democracy protests with brutal crackdowns. Even in Egypt, so recently the site of so much public euphoria and jubilation, the military transition government has been slow to initiate agreed upon reforms and continues to arrest and punish protesters. Meanwhile, U.S. military involvement in Yemen and Libya has increased the public’s disdain for the U.S. government, as has the revelation of the U.S.’s ramped up military investment in Bahrain in 2010. It is increasingly clear that the Western narrative of an “Arab Spring” is too simplistic to responsibly capture events on the ground. Here is a round-up of some of the latest developments:
Syria: Syria tops the headlines today, and not because the so-called “gay girl blogger” allegedly abducted in Syria turns out to be turns out to be the work of a 40 year-old, male U.S. citizen enrolled in a graduate program at Edinburgh University. In fact, the most pressing news is that the government of Syria today deployed military troops to subdue protesters in Jisr al-Shughur. Just as 120 defecting troops were killed last week for refusing to fire on protesters, at least two more died today.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports that a major refugee crisis is brewing, as at least 5,051 Syrians have fled across the border with Turkey to seek asylum. And human rights organizations claim that upwards of 1,300 people have been killed by Syrian security forces in the past three months. And the government is not allowing the International Committee for the Red Cross access, so it is impossible to guess the number of wounded. The US, France and Britain are calling for a UN resolution to enforce tougher economic sanctions, but Russia and China are reluctant to agree. No parties are pushing military action against the government at this time.
Bahrain: The government of Bahrain, backed by the military and political might of Saudi Arabia, has been brutal since the beginning of protests within its borders. Over the weekend, we learned that the US increased sales to Bahrain by $112 million just a few months before the major government crackdown began in late 2010. The Obama administration finds itself in a complicated position, given the President’s frequent calls for violence against protesters to stop. As a result, the State Department is pursuing a review of US military sales and assistance. Pro-democracy activists throughout the region have condemned US military spending and called for the US to support democracy and human rights throughout the region, not just when it’s politically expedient.
On Saturday, over 10,000 Shia protesters took to the streets to stand up against civil liberties crackdowns throughout the state. It was Bahrain’s largest protest yet. But this triumph was undermined by the increased judicial persecution of protesters. On Sunday, a 20 year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi received a one year prison term for writing poetry that criticized the regime. She was convicted of “inciting hatred” against the regime and claims she is being tortured. Two former members of parliament, Jawad Fairooz and Mattar Mattar were arrested as well, prompting at least 18 other legislators to resign. Perhaps most troubling of all, 48 medics have been arrested, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government for treating injured and wounded pro-democracy protesters. Their trials before a military tribunal began today.
The international outcry has been minimal, ostensibly because no one wants a dispute with the Saudi government. The Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled due to public complaints, suggesting that the government’s actions will probably lead to commercial setbacks involving private companies. However, no state has called for sanctions against Syria, and military action is almost certain off the table given the threat posed by Saudi Arabia.
Yemen: Last week, we learned that the US is engaged in secret air strikes on protesters in Yemen, ostensibly to offset the al-Qaeda presence there. While it is true that Yemen has become one of the centers of militant organizing, the urgency of military action without congressional approval seems dubious at best. The recent killings of high level al-Qaeda operatives suggest that the organization does not currently have the capacity to mount a major terrorist attack on US soil. And air strikes are demonstrably at odds with Obama’s recent calls for self-determination and democracy in the region.
Meanwhile, a power transfer is being negotiated in President Saleh’s absence. Opposition leaders say that they are in talks with Vice President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but remain skeptical of the possibilities for real reform. There is concern that Saleh’s family will retain too much political power, and that opposition members will continue to be cut off from basic necessities like food and medical care. But the US bombing campaign, along with the ongoing government crackdown, continues to cut off basic goods and services. And today, Al Jazeera reports“there have been fresh clashes between pro-Saleh forces and anti-government protesters, in the city of Taiz,” where a few thousand pro-Saleh demonstrators have materialized. Even as negotiations proceed, we know that“a number of people have been killed and others injured in [today’s] clashes.”
Jordan: King Abdullah of Jordan has agreed to some substantive concessions, including a democratically elected governing body and the promise of other democratizing amendments. There is a degree of scrutiny among the people right now, evidenced by reports that protesters threw stones and bottles at Addullah’s motorcade today. Though the concessions sound promising, it is unclear whether they will materialize. The people of Jordan are rightly skeptical, given the false “concessions” that Mubarak provided before leaving office.
US foreign policy: The US has long had a reputation for hypocrisy when it comes to Middle East policy, both in the region and elsewhere. The difference between lofty, peaceful rhetoric and realpolitik has never been more stark. Not long ago, the world heard President Obama deliver a speech that stressed the need for Palestinian self-determination. But when the IDF fired on Palestinian civilians attempting to cross into the Occupied Territories from Syria, the administration trotted out the old line that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
And the Obama administration has expanded executive power even further than tits predecessor, now authorizing military operations in Libya and Yemen without seeking congressional approval. This, combined with the seemingly endless US military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, angers the public. Pro-democracy activists in the region can be forgiven for noticing that the US has a tendency to play fast and loose with the lives of people in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and other Muslim states like Afghanistan. Particularly when it feels its national security is at stake.
While “death to America” was never the predominant cry of the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt or Tunisia, patience in the region is understandably wearing thin. If the Obama administration was ever serious about its call for “a new era of diplomacy” in US/Middle East relations, it must act on the basis of that claim quickly. We have witnessed Obama’s talent for delivering rousing, idealistic speeches. But his administration’s continued support for Middle Eastern despot governments, Israel’s human rights violations and endless war are the predominant characteristics of his Middle East policy right now. And if the so-called “Arab Spring” has taught the West anything, it’s that the people in the region are far too politically savvy to believe hollow rhetoric, whether it comes from the US president or from their own rulers. At minimum, the US must overhaul its Middle East foreign policy to support self-determination throughout the region, not just where it’s politically convenient.
Where, then, is US condemnation for the Saudi government’s crackdown on women who dare to drive cars? Where is US outrage over Israel’s cynical exploitation of pro-democracy uprisings in the region? Shouldn’t the Obama administration be concerned about the fact that Netanyahu’s administration has used the protests as an excuse for increased militarization, expanded settlements and unchecked human rights violations? When will changes in US military spending ever take effect? And shouldn’t the US be quicker to support non-violent protesters than it has been to engage in military operations?
US Middle East policy must change dramatically, so we must call on President Obama to implement the “change” he promised. At the moment, the US is constricting the growth of real democratic uprisings in the region. Peaceful protestors continue to be killed on a daily basis, sometimes with US-made weapons. And while Obama and his cabinet sit around and plan meetings at which they can plan more meetings at which they might revise military assistance, people continue to suffer and die at the hands of their rulers. The Middle East and North Africa are in the midst of a pro-democracy revolution that spans the region, and that will continue whether the West officially approves or not.