Originally posted September 2011

US diplomatic history is replete with examples of strategic analysts, State Department officers, and other Washington officials engaging in detailed policy planning dealing with almost any conceivable contingency — except for ordinary people mobilizing to create change. This certainly appears to have been the case regarding the pro-democracy insurrections in the Middle East over the past several months, which have caught Washington completely off-guard. Furthermore, the US response to these popular uprisings has largely not endeared many in these largely youthful movements — who will likely eventually find themselves in positions of power — to the United States.

During the first weeks of the Tunisian protests, for example, rather than praise the largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn the country’s repressive regime, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the US was “not taking sides” and that she would “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Tunisian dictator Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali or his ministers.[1]

Similarly, during the first week of the Egyptian revolution, Clinton insisted that the country was stable and that the government of President Husni Mubarak was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,”[2] despite the miserable failure of the regime in its nearly 30 years in power to do so. Asked whether the United States still supported Mubarak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Egypt remained a “close and important ally.”[3] As during the Tunisian protests, the Obama Administration tried to equate the scattered violence of some pro-democracy protesters with the far greater violence of the dictatorship’s security forces, with Gibbs saying “We continue to believe first and foremost that all of the parties should refrain from violence.”

Even when Clinton finally issued a statement urging “Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications including on social media sites,”[4] the Administration simply called for the regime to reform from within rather than supporting pro-democracy protesters’ demand that the dictator step down. As Clinton put it, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”[5]

By the fifth day of the Egyptian demonstrations, however, the Obama Administration, apparently not wanting to be on the wrong side of history, started speaking in terms of an eventual transition to democratic rule and telling the regime that large-scale repression of nonviolent protesters — which would presumably be implemented with US-supplied weaponry — would be unacceptable. By the second week, the Obama Administration began speaking in terms of a speedy transition to democracy, though never explicitly calling on Mubarak to step down.

After scrambling to play catch-up during the dramatic events unfolding in the two allied North African countries, President Obama finally made eloquent statements praising the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt — right after those countries’ dictators fled.

These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

As the most militarized region with the most military-backed dictatorships in the world, the Middle East and North Africa has long exemplified the realist paradigm that power rests with whoever runs the government and whoever has the guns. The dramatic events of the past year, however, have permanently challenged that assumption. Indeed, the largely nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing challenges to autocratic regimes in Yemen and Syria are a reminder that even if a government has a monopoly of military force, and even in cases where a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. When faced with general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the unarmed pro-democracy insurrections in the Arab world is that they are indicative of the fact that — however outside powers may choose to respond — the United States and other foreign governments are less relevant in determining the future of the region than they have been in more than century.

Even in Libya, the final collapse of the Qadhafi regime came not as a result of NATO air power, but rather the civil insurrections in working class districts which made Tripoli ungovernable and collapsed the final pillars of support for the 42-year dictatorship. Rather than a bloody and protracted battle by advancing rebels to conquer the city from loyalist troops as many predicted, the armored columns of the anti-Qadhafi forces entered the Libyan capital essentially unchallenged, limiting the fighting to mop-up operations at Qadhafi’s compound and a few other small installations. Indeed, the initial phase of the anti-Qadhafi uprising was also overwhelmingly nonviolent and initially succeeded in liberating much of the country from regime control prior to the launching of the armed struggle, the subsequent setbacks, and the NATO-backed military campaign that slowly regained the territory that had been first liberated back in February.

Much has been written as to how the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” have discredited the radical Islamist narrative that pro-Western dictatorships could only be toppled by subscribing to their reactionary interpretations of Islam and supporting violence and even terror. Indeed, Salafi extremists and allied groups have never come close to threatening US-backed autocratic regimes and, if anything, have strengthened them by providing a justification for further militarization and repression.

In addition, though, the pro-democracy struggles in the Arab world have also challenged radical ideologues on the other extreme: the neo-conservatives and other supporters of the Iraq War who insisted that only by Western invasion and occupation could Arab dictators be toppled and democracy take hold. Even putting aside how the repressive and corrupt US-backed regime in Baghdad has fallen well short of virtually any reasonable standard of democracy, it is now clear that there are more effective and far less destructive means of bringing down autocratic regimes.

Defenders of US policy toward Egypt during Mubarak’s autocratic rule note that there had been some quiet US government support for dissident groups. Some US Embassy staffers had had sporadic contacts with pro-democracy activists and, through such Congressionally-funded foundations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), there was limited financial assistance to a number of civil society organizations. This small amount of US “democracy assistance” did not include any support for training in strategic nonviolent action or other kinds of grassroots mobilization that proved decisive in the anti-Mubarak struggle, however, and the key groups that organized the protests refused US funding on principle. In any case, the amount of US funding for NED and related programs in Egypt paled in comparison with the billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance to the Mubarak regime and the close and regular interaction among US officials and leading Egyptian political and military leaders. In addition, most of this limited “pro-democracy” funding was eliminated altogether in early 2009 following Obama’s inauguration.

The lack of enthusiasm by the United States towards popular indigenous pro-democracy struggles could not be better illustrated than in the case of Bahrain, which brutally suppressed the overwhelmingly nonviolent challenge to the autocratic monarchy on that island nation earlier this year.

In the aftermath of the nonviolent overthrow of Mubarak, President Obama warned other Middle Eastern leaders that they should get out ahead of change” by quickly moving toward democracy. Even though the February 15 press conference in which he made this statement took place during some of the worst repression in Bahrain, he chose not to mention the country by name. In the face of Bahraini security forces unleashing violence on peaceful protesters, Obama insisted that “each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.”[6] Though he publicly criticized the regime’s mass imprisonment of opposition leaders and its refusal to enter into meaningful negotiations with them a couple months later, this ambivalent statement contrasts with the Obama Administration’s willingness to play such a major role in the NATO intervention in Libya, even though that opposition movement ended up taking up arms and the democratic credentials of some leaders of the rebel movement were highly suspect.

At the height of the protests in Bahrain, US Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Bahrain to meet King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman, who serves as commander-in-chief for the Bahraini armed forces, where the admiral “reaffirmed our strong commitment to our military relationship with the Bahraini defense forces.” And, despite the massacres of the previous week, he thanked the Bahraini leaders “for the very measured way they have been handling the popular crisis here.”[7] Indeed, the February 25 New York Times reported how the Obama Administration had “sent out senior diplomats in recent days to offer the monarchs reassurance and advice — even those who lead the most stifling governments.”[8] Also telling was a speech given in April at the annual meeting of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, DC in which Obama’s special Middle East advisor Dennis Ross condemned alleged Iranian support for Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement while saying nothing about the military intervention by US-backed Saudi and Emirati forces in Bahrain to help crush the pro-democracy struggle.

The United States has been only somewhat more open to the pro-democracy forces in Yemen. Between the time when Obama came to office in January 2009 and when aid was suspended earlier this year, US security assistance to the Yemeni regime went up five-fold.  Despite diplomatic cables going back as far as 2005[9] indicating that Yemeni’s autocratic President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih could potentially face a popular pro-democracy uprising, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without him. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in March 2011, “For right now, he’s our guy.”[10]

Since then, the Obama administration has belatedly joined its European allies in encouraging Salih to step aside. At the same time, the United States has not been very supportive of the pro-democracy protests, either. For example, following government attacks on peaceful pro-democracy protesters in April, which killed a dozen protesters and injured hundreds of others, the US embassy called on the Yemenis to cooperate with the Saudi-led initiatives for a transition of power — which Salih ultimately rejected — by “avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches and speeches.”[11]

In recent decades, American human rights activists have engaged in protests, civil disobedience, and other actions challenging US support for repressive regimes in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, campaigns which have enjoyed varying degrees of success. Seeing images in recent months from various Arab countries of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and other instruments of repression with “Made in USA” written on them has raised awareness of the role the United States plays in propping up dictatorial regimes and suppressing pro-democracy struggles in the region. However, no comparable movement has gotten much traction thus far regarding US support for Middle Eastern dictatorships.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, Syrians, and Bahrainis who — like the Chileans, Serbians, Filipinos, Poles, Czechs, South Africans, and many others before them — have nonviolently faced down the tear gas, water cannons, truncheons, and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s number one supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support of freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

For, ultimately, freedom will come to the Middle East not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves. Perhaps, then, the best thing the United States can do at this point to support democracy is to end its backing of autocratic regimes and leave it to the people to chart their own future.


[1]. Interview with Taher Barake of Al Arabiya — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Dubai, UAE, January 11, 2011, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/01/154295.htm.

[2]. “US Urges Restraint in Egypt, Says Government is Stable,” Reuters, January 25, 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE70O0KF20110125.

[3]. “White House Monitoring Egypt Situation Closely,” Reuters, January 26, 2011, http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE70P0MC20110126.

[4]. “As Arabs Protest, U.S. Speaks Up,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/26/AR20110….

[5]. “Egypt has Chance to Make Political Reforms: U.S.,” Reuters, January 26, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/26/us-egypt-protest-clinton-idUS….

[6]. “Press Conference by the President,” The White House, February 15, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/15/press-conference-…

[7]. “Mullen Reaffirms American-Bahraini Alliance,” American Forces Press Service, February 25, 2011, http://www.militaryavenue.com/Articles/Mullen+Reaffirms+American-Bahrai….

[8]. “U.S. Trying to Pick Winners in New Mideast,” The New York Times, February 24, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/world/middleeast/25diplomacy.html?_r=….

[9]. “Yemen Unrest — Monday 21 March 2011,” The Guardian, March 21, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/mar/21/yemen-army-commanders-….

[10]. Judith S. Yaphe, “Post-Revolutionary Transitions: A Conference Report,” Event Report, Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research, March 31, 2011, http://www.ndu.edu/inss/docUploaded/YAPHE_REVOLUTION_Event_Report.pdf.

[11]. “US Embassy Statement on April 27 Events,” Embassy of the United States, Sana‘a, Yemen, April 28, 2011, http://yemen.usembassy.gov/ues.html.


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