"We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator ... America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region ... we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike."
Which prominent American spoke these words? It was neither Senator John McCain, enthusiast of democracy promotion, nor former President George W. Bush, architect of the Freedom Agenda. It was our realist, pragmatic President Barack Obama, in a major speech on May 19, 2011, during the heady early months of the Arab Spring. The president argued that concentrating mainly on longstanding U.S. security interests was no longer enough. Obama declared that encouraging transitions to democracy was now a "top U.S. priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal." He announced a three-pronged strategy for the transitioning countries: standing up firmly for democratic values, helping troubled economies, and expanding engagement beyond Arab regimes to newly-emboldened citizens.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
Libya's elections did not need to be perfect, but the country plainly needs a popularly elected government to tackle the difficult and unpopular decisions involved in building the new state. The polls thus could have been judged a success merely by taking place without major disruption, a test they aced with flying colors following reports of 65 percent turnout and over 98 percent of polling centers opening without incident. Around the country, the long-awaited vote was justifiably treated as cause for national celebration.
But the seeds for political contention at the next stage may have been sown in the run-up to the polls. Less than 48 hours prior to elections, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped the to be elected national congress of its core mandate: supervising the drafting of Libya's new constitution. Rather than being appointed by the new congress, the constitutional commission actually drafting the charter will theoretically now be directly elected in a second set of polls that give all parts of the country equal representation. This legal bombshell risks acrimony later this year between different parts of the country as well as rejection by the newly ascendant political parties, who on paper find themselves in charge of a congress suddenly relegated to bystander status on constitutional matters.
On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia -- a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia's non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt's former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.
The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations -- only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women's rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear -- keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.
On Monday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe stated that freezing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's assets should be discussed as soon as possible. Such an assets freeze has been an action pushed by nationwide protesters for months and is widely seen as the first step that must be taken if Yemen's 10-month long political stalemate is to come to an end.
After being tricked into believing that Saleh would sign a Gulf Cooperation Council brokered power transfer deal three times, the international community has finally realized that Saleh has no intention of leaving power until at least 2013, the end of his official presidential term of office. Other than using language to "condemn" the killing of peaceful protesters, an ineffectual U.N. resolution, and asking nicely, an assets freeze would be the first real attempt to put pressure on President Saleh to step down.
It's Palestine season at the United Nations! As the world's governments field their teams and their talking points for the next round of diplomacy's most bruising sport, some of you watching from home may be wondering how to judge who the winner is. Your confusion is understandable: Palestine has been on the U.N.'s agenda since Britain placed it there in 1947; and, like other games invented by the British, this one is interminably long and difficult to follow. Use this guide to make sense of what happens next.
You can expect almost everyone to jump into the fray in New York this season, but four teams are especially worth watching: the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Europeans, and the Americans. Here is what each needs to do to win.
Friday's attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by protestors marching from Tahrir Square and the subsequent harsh security crackdown could become an epic fail for the Egyptian revolution. That's not because Egyptians shouldn't protest against Israel if that's what angers them, and it's not because the incident is likely to escalate to war. It's because the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel.
This would be a terrible mistake. The absence of any legitimate political institutions seven months after Mubarak's fall and the SCAF's arbitrary and unaccountable rule are what created the political vaccuum which has brought Egypt to this edge. Yesterday's chaos should not be taken as a reason to postpone a democratic transition. It should instead be a powerful reminder of the urgency of sticking to the timeline for elections and getting on with the business of building an Egyptian democracy. Those who care about Egypt completing its revolution should now be doubling down on the urgency of a real democratic transition -- not backing away from it.
DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi's wife and three of his children found political refuge in neighboring Algeria comes as no surprise given the country's long-standing effort to reaffirm its revolutionary heritage, drawn from 132 years of colonial occupation and nearly eight years of a war of national liberation. Yet this historically-rooted revolutionary struggle was long ago routinized. The resulting bureaucratically defined and elitist directed nationalist myth is intended as much to sustain the political status quo as to serve as an exemplar of peoples' revolt against hegemonic rule, whether foreign imposed or domestically conspired.
Algeria's reluctance to abandon its fellow revolutionary in Libya flows from an outdated yet still dominant ideological frame of reference through which Algeria sees the world and wants to be seen by it. It also reflects an unwillingness to accept the new geopolitical and strategic realities that the Arab Spring has brought to North Africa and the Middle East.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.