The List

Speaking Truth to Power

Activists from around the Middle East tell FP what they'd like to hear from Obama's speech on Thursday.

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to give a seminal speech on the Middle East on Thursday, Foreign Policy asked key dissidents and activists across the region what they'd like to see from the administration.

Palestine

Fadi Elsalameen

Research fellow, New America Foundation

In light of the "Arab spring," how should the United States change its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? What should it learn from the uprisings?

The "Arab spring" sent a clear message to the United States: Democracy cannot be exported, but it can be imported. Now Israel is no longer the only democracy in the Middle East. True American interests and democratic values are aligned with Arab masses' demands and aspirations for the first time. Israel's occupation of Palestine is the only credible threat to a closer relationship between the United States and Arab democratic regimes. The fact that Arab masses crossed the Syrian-Israeli borders into Israel, while chanting: "The people want to liberate Palestine" is a clear sign that, if the United States wants a relationship with both the Arabs and Israel, this relationship can no longer be based on the old dynamics.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

I would like to dream that a Palestinian state is just an Obama speech away. Sadly, Obama's speeches on the Middle East are like Advil pills -- if the first one doesn't work, take another. Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas failed to secure an Israeli promise to stop settlement expansions on Palestinian land. Obama's speech should encourage Abbas to declare a Palestinian state not just for the sake of the Palestinians, but also for the sake of Israel.

Tunisia

Amine Ghali

Program director, Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in its response to the uprising in your country?
The United States was reluctant at first to support the popular uprising because of two reasons. First, the Tunisian revolt was the first of its kind in the Arab region. Secondly, policymakers and U.S. "antennas" on the ground did not know who were they dealing with because the popular revolt had no obvious leadership.

When the uprising was confirmed, the United States changed its approach and demonstrated greater support to the new interim government(s) and to the democratization process. Rather than interfering directly into politics, the U.S. chose to adopt a more timid, less visible approach. This approach is rather a good one. However, it should be reinforced at two levels: a supportive political discourse (speeches, support at regional and international institutions) and by a stronger, more visible economic support (investments, job creation, economic exchange programs).

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

Tunisia is a country that opened the door for a Tunisian democratic revolution; any forces and countries that hinder the success of this revolution are opponents of democratization; the free world will not remain silent in any such setback.

 

Nabila Hamza

President, Foundation for the Future

What did you learn about U.S. foreign policy as a result of its response to the uprising in Tunisia?
U.S. foreign policy can adapt-- albeit slowly-- when faced with a transformative shift in geopolitics. In Tunisia, the U.S. eventually recognized the historical significance of the moment and of the Tunisian people's struggle for their basic rights and freedoms. Nonetheless, such a response should have come sooner in order to gain the full trust of the Tunisian people. Foreign policy is about more than state-to-state relations, and in order to succeed in the region, the U.S. needs to forge stronger relationships with the people of these countries based consistently on democratic values.
In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?
Although each country in the region presents its own set of challenges for the United States, Obama needs to make an unequivocal statement in support of people throughout the region. He should state explicitly that democracy will no longer be relegated to a secondary priority when other interests are at stake. He should send a warning to autocratic allies that the U.S. will no longer turn a blind eye if these regimes continue to ignore the demands of their people for freedom and genuine political reforms. Moreover the United States should reinforce the pressure and take significant steps in isolating the Syrian government, and unequivocally request an immediate end to the ongoing bloody crackdown on political protests in the country.

For countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that are taking steps toward greater political freedom, Obama should announce increased, and more focused, economic support targeting job creation and sustainable growth. Providing greater aid to Tunisia and Egypt - a "genuine democracy dividend" - would not only help them battle some of their economic ills, but it would be a powerful signal to people in the region that the United States supports their economic and political aspirations. Progress in terms of employment and investment will resonate strongly in the region, which requires 100 million new jobs by 2020 to curb the massive unemployment rate, currently one of the highest in the world.

 

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been for decades now (jointly with the support to authoritarian and corrupt regimes) possibly the single most damaging issue to the American image and reputation in the region. One of the most striking features of recent U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been that it often appeared out of touch with current realities to the point of being almost anachronistic and ‘old-fashioned' so to say. We are all aware of how complicated is the Arab-Israeli scenario, but people in the region feel that the US should put in an extra push to hopefully disentangle this knot and achieve a solution which is perceived as reasonably just and acceptable to all parties involved

 

Egypt

Sherif Mansour

Senior program officer, Freedom House

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in their response to the uprising in Egypt?

It was clear to me that the Obama administration did not have a strategy to deal with Egypt, let alone all other countries in the region. They took, and still for the large part, the position of no position. In order to avoid criticism, and anger from one party or another, they ended up upsetting everyone. I learnt that they are only ready to do and say the right things, when it is convenient, and not when it is unbeneficial.
In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?

Ideally, I would like Obama to start his speech by recognizing the policy mistakes his administration made prior to and during the uprising in Egypt and in other countries in the region on the issue of democracy promotion.

I hope he would speak directly to the remaining Arab dictators, acknowledging that while they may be anxious and concerned about the recent political uprisings, they should play a constructive role in bringing about meaningful changes in their countries rather than standing in the way of progress-or as Obama has put it in the past, against the ‘arc of history'.

I also hope he would announce the U.S.'s unequivocal support for this new "Middle East", in which the U.S. will ally with the people and partner with them on mutual interests, rather than the interests of a few. As with the case of Turkey, he would rather deal with a strong partner, who may not agree with the U.S. on every policy issue, rather than deal with a corrupt and vulnerable ruler who uses U.S. support for its own survival.

Finally, I hope he would say that the U.S. supports "Axis of Good" in the region, including countries like Tunisia and Egypt, to be the driving force and model for democratic transition in the region. That he will make available all relevant U.S. resources and leverage in the region to ensure their transitions run smoothly and overcome attempts by internal and external to disrupt this process.

Libya

Nabil Elhouni

Benghazi, Libya

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in its response to the uprising in your country?

The United States' foreign policy in response to the uprising in Libya was cautious at the beginning, and lacked clarity of purpose. In other words, out of touch with reality on the ground. In my opinion, this is due in part to the limited information the administration had on Libya and its unorganized civil society, and the distorted views echoed by many pundits. Furthermore, I believe that U.S. policymakers in the administration as well as on Capitol Hill were caught off guard by the speed at which the Arab regimes were shaken and taken down -- regimes that for years misled the Americans and squandered all financial logistical assistance provided to them.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country?

Unless the administration changes course and begins to engage with civil societies and view the Arab and Muslim world (people) as true partners in shaping the future of the world, American dominance and influence will diminish and diminish fast!

I strongly believe that the situation in Libya can and will be a catalyst for change in the entire region, just as we witnessed after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. After 42 years of oppression under Qaddafi, the freed people of Libya have proclaimed that the Feb. 17 revolution washes off all previous misdeeds so long as they do not have Libyan blood on their hands. Next, I say to President Obama: Do away with the policy of fear, turn the page and embrace the change coming from the Middle East! Finally, I call upon the Obama administration, Congress, and the State Department to make an unequivocal, formal statement recognizing the Libyan National Transitional Council as the de jure government of the people of Libya.

Bahrain

Nabeel Rajab

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in their response to the uprising in your country?

We thought that our regime's strong ties with the U.S. administration would strengthen our movement towards democracy and human rights, but unfortunately it turned out to have the opposite effect. It is the first time we feel this kind of oppression and pain caused by the U.S. decision to practice double standards in their foreign policy.

I am afraid that the cautious silence of the U.S. administration has caused them to lose the hearts and minds of the people in this part of the world. It has become evident today that, to the United States, democracy and human rights should only be applied to countries that are in conflict with the United States -- but not with dictatorships it calls its allies.

It is time for the United States to realize the urgency of the situation before it completely loses momentum with the people here. Look at history: The United States did the same thing with Iran more than 30 years ago and this is the result. The United States should no longer build its long-lasting strategy depending on repressive regimes, but rather with the people before they lose both.

Saudi Arabia

Ibrahim Almugaiteeb

Director, Human Rights First Society of Saudi Arabia

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in its response to events in your country?

The foreign policy of the United States has not been consistent with U.S. ideals.

I would like to see President Obama stand by the values and principles of the United States as the Founding Fathers viewed the issues of freedoms and democracy. Consequently the president should be calling for full respect of human rights and to freedoms for the Saudi people including, but not limited to, respect for the rule of law, freedom of association, gender equality, stopping all kinds of discrimination against religious minorities in Saudi Arabia, and, finally, for full freedom of expression including the right of the Saudi people to peaceful demonstrations.

Khalid Alnowaiser

Lawyer, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

What did you learn about U.S. foreign policy in its response to the uprisings in the Arab region?

Although some people in the region want the United States to fix the whole world's problems (which is completely illogical and impossible), I believe the policy of the current U.S. administration is much more reasonable and pragmatic in its dealings with other countries than prior administrations, especially with regard to issues involving human rights.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday?

I would like President Obama to propose that the United States will take the lead to propose new legislation where international banks, whether in the West or elsewhere, are not allowed to accept money deposited by dictators in the region, and that this money will be considered no different than money laundering. If he would do so, it would send a strong message to regional dictatorships that corruption is no longer tolerated, which recent events in the Arab world proves to be the one of the reasons for political turmoil and ongoing human rights violations. My wish list is more extensive, but if President Obama would deliver just this one message, I am convinced that the whole region will understand that the U.S. is very serious and America will receive greater respect in the Arab world. Fighting corruption is no different than fighting terrorism, both of which require broad international support.

Morocco

Hisham al-Miraat

Co-founder, Talk Morocco

What did you learn about the United States' foreign policy in its response to the protests in Morocco?

The early U.S. diplomatic reactions to the Arab uprisings have also confirmed a constant in U.S. foreign policy -- an enduring double standard that deals with countries on a case-by-case basis, in an approach guided in fact by a narrow interpretation of the odd notion of U.S. national interest.

While the U.S. foreign policy's double standard is blatant in its dealings with governments like Bahrain or Yemen, it takes a much more pervasive and subtle form in semi-authoritarian countries like Morocco.

But the U.S. official policy puts it at odds with a young, freedom-aspiring generation of Moroccans, hundreds of thousands of whom are still taking to the streets, rejecting a reform process they deem inconsistent with the popular will, while facing an increasingly repressive security apparatus.

The Arab spring is changing the rules of the game. U.S. foreign policy is still based on a doctrine that reserves different sets of rules for different sets of countries. This double standard is insulting to the intelligence of the people of the region who can no longer tolerate that their freedoms be confiscated in the name of a superpower's perceived interest.

In an ideal world, what would you like Obama to say on Thursday when addressing events in your country or the region?

In an ideal world, Mr. Obama would pledge that the United States will never interfere with the people's aspirations for freedom and democracy, whether in the Arab region or any other part of the world. Mr. Obama would also be vowing to respect the sovereignty of free and democratic countries, whether political or economic. He would finally be declaring that the United States is withdrawing its support from every state that doesn't respect human rights, and that would necessarily include Israel and all Arab states, minus Tunisia and Egypt.

Adam Altan/AFP

The List

State of the Arab Spring

On the eve of President Obama's address, the Middle East's restive countries are experiencing everything from measured success to incipient civil war. Here's where things stand.

As President Barack Obama puts the finishing touches on what is expected to be a seminal speech on America's engagement with the Middle East, it's worth taking another look at the revolutions roiling the Arab world. Five months after Tunisian protesters overthrew their autocratic leader, sparking a wave of unrest from Libya to Oman, the euphoria of the first wave of democratic uprisings has largely given way to political stalemate, open warfare, brutal crackdowns, and backroom negotiations. That's not to say that there haven't been real and profound successes, but there's also no doubt that the region has a much more complicated political landscape than it did in November of last year. Here then, on the eve of Obama's speech, is a look at the State of the Arab Spring.

Success stories

The success stories of the Arab Spring have proved that a country's ills don't miraculously disappear when its dictator leaves the stage. Both post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt are facing the uncertainties of new political orders, the challenge of a wide array of popular grievances that were suppressed under previous regimes, and interim governments that have a suspect commitment to promised democratic reforms.

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali may have been ousted in January, but the protest movement that drove him from power has never fully abandoned the streets. Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, who served as the president of Tunisia's Chamber of Deputies under Ben Ali, suggested that an election planned for July 24 to assemble a committee to write the country's new constitution could be delayed. His announcement came after four days of protests demanding the resignation of his government, which police broke up on May 8 by firing tear gas at demonstrators.

"I do not think the Tunisian people, the founder of the revolution of dignity, need the services of old supporters of tyranny to continue on its path and reach its achievements," wrote M. Necibi on Nawaat, one of the most active dissident websites in Tunisia. "While the revolution continues, one is far from being free."

Egyptians has also discovered that their newfound freedoms do not automatically guarantee stability. Cairo has been the scene of bitter clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in recent weeks, which have left 15 people dead. The clashes were serious enough to force Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the head of Egypt's ruling military council, to deliver his first speech since assuming power, in which he vowed to crush with "an iron fist" those who instigate violence.

Quelling sectarian tensions, however, is easier said than done. Christian protesters have gathered outside the state TV station in Cairo, to protest their community's lack of protection. And while some have blamed sectarian extremists on both sides for the violence, other Egypt analysts are having none of it. "Discussions about sectarianism in Egypt that harp on Xtian sectarianism as an equivalent issue reminds of discussions in US abt black racism," tweeted Century Foundation fellow Michael Wahid Hanna on May 13.

The growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains Egypt's best-organized opposition group, has only exacerbated the fears of Christian and secular Egyptians alike. The Islamist organization -- officially banned for over a half-century -- recently launched a formal political party, and a prominent member of the organization announced that he would be a candidate in the country's presidential election scheduled for later this year, albeit without the Brotherhood's permission.

Meanwhile, the post-revolutionary government continues to debate how far it should push its corruption probe of members of the Mubarak family. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak was released from prison after returning some of her assets to the state, while the government also confirmed that former President Hosni Mubarak would not be granted immunity from corruption charges.

One fear is that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is made up of military officers who until recently were stalwart Mubarak supporters, could use the instability to renege on their promises of a swift transition to democracy. "I think there's a tremendous amount of mistrust among the revolutionary groups about what the military's intentions are -- it seems like the military is on its own side and not anybody else's," Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steve Cook told FP. "It's not beyond the bounds to suggest that people will want to use the breakdown of social cohesion and instability to advance their political interests."

Descent into chaos

Ben Ali and Mubarak were certainly no angels, but, when push came to shove, they were unwilling to massacre their populations en masse in order to maintain their grip on power. But some Arab regimes are ruled by a different breed of dictator. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, governments responded to popular uprisings with the massive application of military force, risking international intervention and social fragmentation.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided the legal justification for NATO's intervention in Libya, was passed on March 17, just as Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's tanks encroached on the outskirts of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Over the past two months, a sustained international bombing campaign has weakened Qaddafi -- rebels recently drove back his military from the western port city of Misrata, and made gains along the country's mountainous border with Tunisia. However, these military setbacks, a pending ICC indictment of the Libyan leader, and the defection of top officials have not yet been enough to force the mercurial autocrat from power.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh appears to be intensifying his crackdown even as the country fractures around him. The capital of Sanaa has been the scene of competing protests by pro- and anti-government demonstrators in recent weeks, who have gathered by the hundreds of thousands. Saleh's forces have used live ammunition against protesters in the southern town of Taiz, wounding dozens. Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seized on the chaos: Militants belonging to the terrorist group launched multiple attacks over the weekend, killing 12 soldiers in 24 hours.

But despite the deteriorating security situation, chances of forcing Saleh from power appear increasingly distant. Saleh initially indicated that he would sign a plan sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would pave the way for his resignation within 30 days, but then threw a wrench in the process by saying that he would only sign in his capacity as head of the ruling party, not as president -- a caveat bitterly opposed by the opposition. "Time to sleep after confusing day of #Saleh is signing or not," tweeted Ghanem_M. "Who cares will kick him out!!"

Meanwhile, a brutal military response by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not been enough to suppress the country's determined opposition. Gruesome videos emerged of mass graves reportedly discovered in the southern city of Daraa; human rights organizations have estimated that over 850 people have been killed and over 10,000 arrested in the military crackdown, which has seen troops and tanks invade entire cities. Protesters nevertheless took to the streets again last Friday, albeit in lesser numbers than in previous weeks, with demonstrations occurring in the cities of Homs, Idlib, and the capital of Damascus.

The White House imposed new sanctions on Syria on May 18 that targeted Assad directly for the first time, but has stopped short of siding completely with the protesters' demands. "The Obama administration is increasingly holding the Assad regime accountable for its actions against protesters, but it's still hedging concerning its decision whether Assad must go or not," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Andrew Tabler.

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Several countries initially witnessed the stirrings of a protest movement -- only to see the demonstrations quickly fizzle out. Morocco, long considered one of the Arab countries ripe for revolution, saw demonstrations peak on Feb. 20 when as many as 10,000 people took to the streets in the capital of Rabat to demand greater political freedom. Five people were killed in the day's violence, and one protester narrowly avoided being flattened by a police van. But the protests died down as quickly as they started -- by early March, reporters were crediting King Mohamed VI's promises of reforms and the country's omnipresent security services for nipping the movement in the bud.

Protests in Jordan similarly failed to achieve a critical mass. Thousands rallied against the country's dire economic state as early as January, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and a rejiggering of the cabinet. But the cycle of government capitulation followed by escalating demands from the opposition seen elsewhere in the region did not take hold in Jordan; the protests continued in fits and starts until March, before largely petering out.

King Abdullah II confirmed that his standing in Washington remains strong when he scored a meeting with President Barack Obama on May 17. "His Majesty discussed the reform efforts that are taking place inside Jordan," Obama said in a statement following the meeting. "[We] feel confident that, to the extent that he's able to move these reforms forward, this will be good for the security and stability of Jordan."

But Jordan and Morocco's allies don't seem all that confident that the countries have seen the worst of the uprising. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced on May 11 that it would begin membership talks with the kingdoms -- a surprising step, given that the two countries do not border the Persian Gulf or have the oil riches of other GCC states. Many analysts suggested that it was an attempt to establish a "counterrevolutionary front" of countries opposed to the changes sweeping the Middle East.

But not even the GCC states have been completely immune from the regional unrest. Saudi Arabia experienced small protests on March 4 and March 11 in its Eastern Province, which is home to the majority of the country's Shiite population -- and its oil fields. King Abdullah, eager to avoid the unfamiliar sight of confrontations between state security forces and angry citizens, showered his subjects with $36 billion in handouts upon returning to the kingdom from medical treatment abroad. It appears that Saudi Arabia's deep pocketbook has successfully defused the problem -- for now.

Quashed

The GCC established its counterrevolutionary bona fides in Bahrain, where it has been ruthlessly effective at crushing a popular uprising in the tiny Gulf kingdom. The ruling monarchy's response to the demonstrations, which broke out in early February, was initially equivocal: The protesters were allowed to gather peacefully, and demonstrators in the capital, Manama, flocked to Pearl Square by the tens of thousands.

The regime's tolerant attitude did not last. A military crackdown on Feb. 17 scattered the demonstrators at Pearl Square, killing at least four people. Perhaps due to splits in the ruling Khalifa family, the government then vacillated between attempts at repression and reconciliation -- achieving neither. Videos of peaceful demonstrators being shot in cold blood on the streets of Manama did little to stop the protests' numbers from growing.

By March 14, the regime's allies in the Gulf -- worried about the collapse of a fellow Sunni monarchy and Iranian intervention on behalf of the majority Shiite population -- had seen enough. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent over 1,000 troops rolling into the kingdom under the aegis of the "Peninsula Shield" mutual protection program. The government crackdown accelerated: On March 18, the military demolished the Pearl Monument that had been at the literal center of the protest movement.

The crackdown has only worsened in recent days. Bahrain's justice minister announced on May 3 that doctors and nurses who treat injured protesters would be prosecuted before a military court. According to a major opposition group, dozens of mosques and Shiite religious sites have been destroyed by the government. According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, dozens have been killed and hundreds arrested since February.

And the tactic has worked. The United States, concerned about enabling Iranian influence and endangering the crucial base of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has been largely silent about the government crackdown. Obama has called for the regime to embark on "a process of meaningful reform" but has stopped short of taking any actions that would pressure it to do so.

On Thursday, May 19, Obama will address the very different situations in these countries, in which the United States has varying interests, and try to lay out a coherent U.S. policy toward them. But at least a few former officials think he shouldn't even try. "Great powers behave inconsistently -- even hypocritically -- depending on their interests," wrote Aaron David Miller in FP. "That's not unusual; it's part of the job description." Sounds like the president has his work cut out for him.

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