US, Crisis in Tunisia and Democracy in Middle East

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour
University Faculty Member & International Issues Analyst

Active ImageSelf-immolation of an educated street vendor in Tunisia led to collapse of the country’s government as a result of street demonstrations and rioting which has since spread to other North African countries. Therefore, the development has turned into a major subject for international debates and an important issue for regional and international players.

What is the US position with respect to social and economic unrests in the Arab world? How does the United States approach such cases of self-immolation which have been sweeping many Arab countries in Africa, including Mauritania, Algeria, and Egypt? How the relationship between the United States and these developments can be analyzed? How the existing state of affairs can be understood in the light of recent positions taken by the US President Obama, as a president who seeks to cause change in the world, the region and US foreign policy?

In fact, the recent spate of self-immolation in Arab countries has provided an opportunity to analyze US policies to democratize the Middle East. The issue of democratization has been a main concern for the international community following the fall of a bipolar world system.

Political developments in Eastern Europe followed by democratization in the Latin America and East Asia, have rekindled democratization efforts in the Middle East. Given cordial relations between the United States and most Arab countries, analysts have been wondering about actual role of the United States in democratization of the Middle East during the past two decades. Meanwhile, Washington has been testing various policies and initiatives, the most recent of which was Obama’s approach. The new crisis, however, is challenging that discourse as well as the US policies in the Middle East.

Careful review of Obama’s vague remarks about Tunisia will be followed here by a discussion of political deadlock in the Arabic Middle East. Finally, the US approach to democratization as a strategic commodity and democratic deficits will be explained.

1. Washington’s vague policy in Tunisia

The political crisis in Tunisia has evolved over a few weeks and is now entering its sensitive phase. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in an interview with Al-Arabiya on January 11, 2011, that in the conflict between the Tunisian people and government, the United States will not take sides with either of them. She also talked about good relations between Washington and Tunis, but tried not to take an explicit position on the riots.

Three governments have risen and fallen in Tunisia in 48 hours. The Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country on Friday as a result of new conditions. Although he already claimed that he would retain his post as president up to 2014, he lost that post in a matter of 24 hours. Obama, in his statement, partially sided with the Tunisian people and lauded their struggles while asking on government forces to avoid violence.

Therefore, the current US policy toward people’s struggles in Tunisia and the situation in other North African and Arabic countries is vague. On the other hand, Washington has to preserve its ties with the Arab states despite its knowledge of abnormalities in those countries. Obama has been forced into his current position which he would not have taken if self-immolation and subsequent unrests had not taken place in Tunisia. This is a direct result of vague and conflicting policies of the United States on the situation of democracy in the Middle East and people’s relations with Arab states which, in turn, results from political deadlock in the Arab world.

2. US and political deadlock in the Arab world

There is near consensus that the United States is well aware of structural problems in the Arab world. Wikileaks documents, at least on Tunisia, clearly prove that the US ambassador has been aware of corruption in the government and its declining situation since 2008 and has communicated his knowledge to the State Department. The ambassador has reported that North African and Arab states do not have a suitable relationship with their people and this has been quite clear to the American Middle East researchers, American diplomats and those involved in the US foreign policy.

Why the United States has not taken an explicit position on the issue of political deadlock? A reason is US priorities for democratization in the Middle East. Washington is aware that Arab countries need radical political changes, but is also willing to keep its ties to the Arab elites who agree to the United States’ current position on international and Middle Eastern issues. Any change in the political elites may be followed by problems in bilateral relations between Washington and any of those states and may also cause problems for US regional policies.

In an article published in December and January edition of the Foreign Affairs magazine, Peter Harling and Robert Malley, both Middle East experts, have expressed their viewpoints about US approach to the Middle East. The gist of the article is that despite the end of the Cold War, the US approach to the Middle East is still defined in terms of the Cold War relations. That is, Washington still divided the Middle Eastern countries and political groups into moderate, western-minded ones and radical ones that oppose the west, including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. As a result, the United States spares no effort to contain its opponents.

That dichotomy has practically prevented the US from having a good grasp of developments in the Middle East because such division falls short of explaining realities on the ground. Firstly, the Middle East is too dynamic and its political groups and currents are too fluid to be easily dichotomized in a Cold War manner. Secondly, this attitude does not leave enough room for adequate attention to political deadlock in the Arab world. Thirdly, the Arab elites and statesmen know this and try to capitalize on it. Therefore, they have been introducing themselves as governments which are opposed to Islamist groups in order to provide grounds for further development of their power base.

This contradiction and conflict in the US foreign policy has continued for the past two decades and although many plans have been presented, none of them have been successful in putting pressure on the Arab states as they were not actually aimed to solve problems faced by the Arab masses in the Arab world.

Active Image3. Strategic commodity and democratic deficit

The United States has turned its struggle against Muslim groups and followers of the political Islam into a strategic commodity which is demanded and purchased by the United States and it is ready to pay a high price on it. That high price is the support that Washington offers for the status quo by remaining inattentive to democratic deficits.

The United States is promoting the idea that Iran is behind every strategic development in the Middle East which aims to disturb the regional peace and security and most Arab leaders try to cover their democratic deficits by selling that strategic commodity.

Another point is the role played by Israel in this strategic and democratic game. Despite its claims about being democratic on the inside, Israel opposes American statesmen who are aware of democratic deficits in the Middle East and maintain that pressure should be exerted on the Arab states to make them push on with democratic reforms. Israeli officials argue that such pressure will enliven Islamic forces and enable them to replace liberal and secular ones. They also mention Hamas as an example which won the power through a democratic election. Another example is Algeria in 1990s when Islamist forces gained power through democratic processes, but election results were made null and void under pressures from the west.

The remarks of Israeli deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom on Israel’s concern about spread of democratic movements in the Middle East and his hope that the international community will not allow Islamist groups to gain power in Tunisia, attest to the above fact. The possibility that aggrandizing democratic deficits in Egypt may imbalance the country to the detriment of Tel Aviv, is the worst nightmare for Israelis.

The crisis in North Africa is the outcome of conflicting trends in the US foreign policy. This is not just a few Arab youths setting themselves alight; it is an end to US claims about democracy as it reveals lack of commitment to democratization in the Middle East. In fact, when it comes to the Middle East, democracy is not considered a priority. Maintaining the status quo is the highest priority for the United States even at the cost of risking many cases of self-immolation, political deadlocks, as well as challenges and contradictions in US policies.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy
Translated By: Iran Review

*Link for Further Reading: The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic  Countries: