The United States peddles democracy as part of its foreign policy mantra. Whether it’s the forthcoming elections in Egypt, or oppression of women in Arab states, or genocide in Sudan, our State Department officials and the President himself usually try to discuss human rights, or the lack thereof, with their counterparts whenever the occasion presents itself.
What has been happening in Tunisia these last few days not only has other Arab regimes on edge, but also point to the failure of a U.S. backed regime in the country. Tunisians have risen up to oust a dictatorship, once allied to Washington, toppling President Zine al Abidine ben Ali. As for the rest of the region, the topic of Tunisia dominated Arab economic summit at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. The Economic Summit opened in Egypt on Wednesday, and pledged a $2 billion program to boost faltering Arab economies that have propelled crowds into the streets to protest high unemployment, rising prices and rampant corruption.. But that will take care of only part of the problem.
Perhaps no one has articulated the problem in the region better than Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. Part of the impassioned speech he delivered to the summit sounded a warning:
‘The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession. The Tunisian revolution is not far from us; the Arab citizen entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.’
The Arab soul has also given up on the US for democratic reform. The test case was none other than Cairo, when a newly elected President Obama talked about friendship with the Arab world. Cairenes along with the rest of their Egyptian brothers imagined that Mubarak’s iron fist rule might be somewhat relaxed; that bloggers would no longer be imprisoned for their thoughts that police would not beat activists to death because they criticized the government. That the parliamentary elections recently held in Egypt would be more transparent. Alas, it was not to be.
As Nicola Nasser stated so well in his article for the Palestinian Chronicles, the US has a choice to make in Tunisia. The Arab world has seen the US fight its ‘enemy du jour’ since communism, pan-Arabism, and now the ‘Islamist threat’. But what are they going to say when democracy happens in a state without US intervention? Without U.S. handpicked rulers, such as has happened in Iraq. Will they sit back and let the ‘revolution’ follow its course and let the people elect their leaders by popular vote, or will they fall back to their default position and intervene?
Protests are ongoing in the entire region: Algeria, Egypt (where self-immolation is happening on a daily basis), Jordan, Oman, Libya and Yemen, and most are expressing solidarity with Tunisia. Worrisome for the Arab leaders of said countries. There is nothing like an idea whose time has come.
Though there have been impressive economic pledges made, especially in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the malady is not solely economic, though that is a large part of the problem. Human rights, women’s rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion are on the list of grievances.
Tunisia’s interim Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, announced a national unity government on Tuesday. Nonetheless, four former opposition figures already quit the new Cabinet, protesting the inclusion of six ministers who had served under Ben Ali.
On a closing and disappointing note, President Obama talked to President Mubarak on Tuesday of this week. Regrettably, Obama did not make any suggestions to Mubarak about loosening the iron grip.