The first wave of Arab revolutions is entering its second phase: dismantling the structures of political despotism, and embarking on the arduous journey towards genuine change and democratisation. The US, at first confused by the loss of key allies, is now determined to dictate the course and outcome of this ongoing revolution.
What had been a challenge to US power is now a “historic opportunity”, as Barack Obama put it in his Middle East speech last week. But he does not mean an opportunity for the people who have risen up; it is a chance for Washington to fashion the region’s present and future, just as it did its past. When Obama talks of his desire “to pursue the world as it should be” he does not mean according to the yearnings of its people, but according to US interests.
And how is this new world to be built? The model is that of eastern Europe and the colour revolutions; American soft power and public diplomacy is to be used to reshape the socio-political scene in the region. The aim is to transform the people’s revolutions into America’s revolutions by engineering a new set of docile, domesticated and US-friendly elites. This involves not only co-opting old friends from the pre-revolutionary era, but also seeking to contain the new forces produced by the revolution, long marginalised by the US.
As Obama put it last week: “We must … 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.” To this end he has doubled the budget for “protecting civil society groups” from $1.5m to $3.4m.
The recipients are not only the usual neoliberal elements, but also activists who spearheaded the protest movements, and mainstream Islamists. Programmes aimed at youth leaders include the Leaders for Democracy Arabic project, sponsored by the US state department’s Middle East partnership initiative. A number of Arab activists, including the Egyptian democracy and human rights activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, were invited to an event hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington last month – one of many recent conferences and seminars. Meetings between high-ranking US officials – such as the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer – and the Muslim Brotherhood took place in Cairo last month, while the deputy chairman of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party has recently returned from a visit to Washington to “discuss democratic transition”.
Washington hopes that these rising forces can be stripped of their ideological opposition to US hegemony and turned into pragmatists, fully integrated into the existing US-led international order. Dogma is not a problem, as long as the players agree to operate within parameters delineated for them, and play the power game without questioning its rules. It remains to be seen, however, if they risk losing their popular base in return for US favours.
Containment and integration are not only political, but economic, 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 – already being drafted by the World Bank, IMF and European Development Bank at Washington’s behest – are due to be presented at this week’s G8 summit. A $2bn facility to support private investment has been announced, one of many initiatives “modelled on funds that supported the transitions in eastern Europe”.
As usual, investment and aid are conditional on adoption of the US model in the name of liberalisation and reform, and on binding the region’s economies further to US and European markets under the banner of “trade integration”. One wonders what would be left of the Arab revolutions in such infiltrated civil societies, domesticated political parties, and dependent economies.
However, although the Obama administration may succeed with some Arab organisations, its bid to reproduce the eastern European scenario may be destined to fail. Prague and Warsaw looked to the US for inspiration, but for the people of Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a the US is the equivalent of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe: it is the problem, not the solution. 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, who 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”, in effect denying the citizenship rights of 20% of its Arab inhabitants and the right of return of 6 million Palestinian refugees. In vain does the US try to reconcile the irreconcilable – to preach democracy, while occupying and aiding occupation.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 26 May 2011