As soon as Arab streets and squares started to produce popular revolutions early this year, the United States and its European allies, which have long supported North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships, had to make a critical choice: that of adapting to the new political reality of the region and supporting the forces of democracy. There was, indeed, visible reluctance on their part to abandon the dictatorial rulers—with the French standing by Ben Ali of Tunisia until the very last moment, and the United States likewise preferring smooth democratic transition under Mubarak. In the end, however, what the people in the two countries wanted prevailed, and two of the staunchest pro-Western rulers were ousted from power.
If there was a lesson for Western powers to learn from Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, it was that when people in authoritarian countries come out in streets and squares to demand their due political, economic and social rights—and are willing even to risk their lives for the purpose—it is prudent to support them rather than their suppressive rulers and regimes. Therefore are, of course, realistic concerns or pragmatic interests, revolving largely over ensuring Israeli security in a hostile Middle East or securing oil supplies from the region, which compel the United States and other Western countries to practice extreme caution amid volatile political situations in the region.
For the same reason, the current US-led Western approach towards radical political change underway in the Arab world continues to display double standards—which are most visible in the form of forceful implementation of a no fly zone over Libya largely in support of armed rebels, in contrast to a pathetically lacklustre attitude towards populist, largely non-violent uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain.
As for the causes of Arabian revolutions and the means of their relative success in Tunisia and Egypt, there is general understanding about the population at large in Arabia being politically disenfranchised, economically disempowered and socially suppressed; and a powerful combination of youth and technology fuelling the revolutionary process. The same factors hold true for Yemen and Bahrain at present and will for other authoritarian regimes of the region, which may face youth-led democratic protests with similar intensity in near future.
Yemen and Bahrain are strategically significant for the United States and its Western allies. Yemen under the leadership of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a valuable asset in combating al-Qaeda. The United States has a naval base in Bahrain, which also hosts the US Fifth Fleet. Bahrain is ruled by the minority Sunni dynasty of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, while the country’s majority population is Shiite.
However, as widespread youth-led protests in the two countries and the violent state responses to them in recent weeks suggest, both of these long-standing authoritarian regimes and their rulers have lost political legitimacy to rule, at least in the eyes of their respective majority populations. If a similar argument in the case of Libya can justify the passage of two UN Security Council resolutions in quick row, and the imposition of a no fly zone over the country in a manner that may go beyond the UN mandate itself, then why is the crisis the two Gulf states being allowed to conflagrate to the extent of even jeopardising long-standing realistic and pragmatic Western interests?
That Bahrain’s majority population is Shiite does not mean that a future representative regime and leadership of the country, as a natural outcome of the current popular revolt, should in any way endanger such Western interests. What the clerical order in Iran has done to its majority population, subjugating their due political, economic and social rights and making them hostage to a relentless pursuit of conflict with the US-led West, is clearly understood by the masses of Bahrain and populations of the Gulf.
Inaction in Gulf
Therefore, just for the fear of revolutionary Iran making inroads in the region, the peaceful protestors of Bahrain do not deserve to be treated differently than the armed rebels of Libya. Likewise in Yemen, the dawn of democracy may actually turn out to be the ultimate antidote to al-Qaeda’s terrorist agenda. As the duality of Western dealing with revolts in the region gets amplified, with one standard of toughness for Libya and the other standard of leniency towards Yemen and Bahrain, the long-term crisis for American or Western policy in the region will become acute.
This is especially true when nothing is said by Washington, London and Paris about the recent deployment of troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Bahrain as part of security cooperation among Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC). It is understandable that that the principal aim of this intervention is not to protect “important government installations” but to crush the populist uprising in the country and preserve the despotic rule by al Khalifa dynasty.
The perceived fear from the domino effect of Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions to succeed in Yemen and Bahrain is that it may potentially unseat the House of the Sauds in next-door Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has thus far prevented major upsurge by announcing a host of economic incentives while simultaneously threatening severe crackdown. But who can foresee whether current winds of political change in the wider Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, Algeria, Sudan and Morocco, will not have their natural culmination in the overthrow of the Saudi royalty.
It is a unique dynasty in the region which has monopolised political power with the help of literalist Wahhabi Islamic ideology and provides the last refuge to dictators in exile, from Edi Amin of Uganda to Ben Ali of Tunisia. And, obviously, while Bahrain and Yemen do not have oil and obtain their status as strategically significant countries for having an American naval base and combating al-Qaeda, respectively, the Saudi significance for the United States in particular and the West in general essentially lies in it being the world’s largest possessor and exporter of oil.
What the fall of authoritarian regimes in Bahrain and Yemen could possibly do is to pave the way for the demise of the current dynastic rule in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps in some other countries of the Persian Gulf region. There may be short-term jolts to the perceived or real interests of the United States or its Western allies in the region—with reference, for instance, to determining the price and supply of oil, or renewed populist support for a just and fair resolution of the Palestinian issue. But, then, it is better to prepare for or bear such consequences of democratization in the region, rather than continuing to support stagnant Arabian regimes and leaders and, by default, contributing to growing rage among Arab masses against the United States and the West.
Exceeding UN Mandate
Like many of his counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa, Col Muammar Gaddafi, beyond any doubt, epitomises nothing but stagnation. But his removal from power is an issue that should be left to the Libyan people alone. The UN Security Council resolution 1979, in essence, is about preventing Gaddafi forces from undertaking a large-scale massacre of innocent civilians—a probability that could not be ruled out in Benghazi, if the UN resolution had not come into force to make the no fly zone an effective deterrent against such massacre.
Resolution 1979 was neither intended to overthrow Gaddafi nor divide Libya into rebel-held east, where the country’s oil is, and Gaddafi-controlled West, where most of its population resides. It was solely for the sake of protecting innocent civilians in Libya that the Arab League had requested for the creation of a no fly zone over the country. However, as it seemingly turns out, its principal implementers—the French, the British and the Americans—may be exceeding the mandate of the resolution in carrying out air strikes over questionable targets, even reportedly arming the rebels via Egyptian border. Such controversial approach may in the end lead to Gaddafi’s overthrow with consequent political anarchy as well as division of the country along tribal and geographical lines.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the very representative Arabian entity, the Arab League, which called for the creation of a non-fly zone in the first instance is now critical of the way it is being implemented by Western powers. Secretary-General Amr Moussa recently criticised them by saying, "What happened in Libya is different from the intended aim of imposing the no-fly zone. We want to protect civilians, not the bombing of more civilians.”
The repercussions of whatever outcome the no fly zone, especially its implementation beyond the mandate of the Security Council resolution, has in Libya in coming weeks or months would have to be borne largely by European countries bordering the Mediterranean, the Italians and the French, in the shape of refugee influx or illegal immigrants.
The reason why France, Italy and, perhaps, Britain are so proactive about the Libyan mission may be because of the perceived opportunity to avenge past acts of terrorism sponsored by the Gaddafi regime (for Britain, the 1988 Lockerbie disaster especially). Or they may simply be eying upon the huge oil reserves in eastern Libya, expecting the oil supply on more favorable terms or better contractual terms for the respective oil companies—without any strings attached, as has been the case in dealing with Libya under Gaddafi.
They may be doing so for doing away once and for all with the discomfort of dealing with a terror-prone despot in power for the last 42 years. After all, memories are still afresh of former British premier Tony Blair visiting Gaddafi in Tripoli to secure a trade deal for British Petroleum. Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy not long ago stood shoulder to shoulder with Gaddafi in Elysee Palace in Paris. However, this was the time when the Libya leader had demonstrated his willingness to conduct peacefully with the outside world, loading a ship with all of the country’s nukes and sending it straight to the United States, for instance.
Tackling the Dilemma
For now, the United States has acted wisely to let the aerial intervention in Libya be commanded by its European allies, as Washington’s deep and uncertain engagement in an unstable Iraq and an insurgency-ridden Afghanistan leaves no scope for it to lead yet another intervention in a Muslim country. But the Obama Administration has to go further than this, and ensure that its European partners enforcing the no fly zone over Libya do not exceed the limitations imposed by the UN Security Council resolutions 1973.
That the world body is empowered only to manage challenges of peace and security in the world is a principal that must be upheld by all of its member-states, big or small. There is no global consensus yet about any UN-mandated humanitarian intervention to affect political change within particular countries, including overthrowing its leaders in the guise of supporting democracy.
However, there are a host of other steps that the international community in general and the United States in particular can take to influence stable democratic change in countries experiencing political turmoil. At present, we see two extremes of international response—of which one is supporting the armed rebels, as visible in the case of Libya and another altogether looking acts of suppression by dictatorial regimes and their regional supporters, as is the case with Yemen and Libya.
On the issue of democracy in the Arab or Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the practice of any selective approach—one that accentuates the long-held view among their masses of double standards practiced by America and the West—will have untenable consequences not just for the region but for the international powers having a rational stake in its stability.
The Western dilemma of supporting dictatorial regimes and rulers in the region can be addressed more effectively only through a proactive, universalistic Western approach of supporting youth-led democratization trends in the countries concerned. In Egypt, for instance, it may only be a matter of time when Tahrir Square is again filled with non-violent protestors—led by the very youth activists who recently refused to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—if the cosmetic constitutional reforms do not meet the genuine political, economic and social expectations of the country’s restive youth.
The recently held referendum in Egypt is believed to be supportive of the two established parties, the National Democratic Party of the former president and the much feared Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood. If the outcome of elections to be held later this year on the basis of the constitutional reforms approved in the referendum is in the shape of these very parties capturing most parliamentary seats, then the fundamental issues of the country, which forced its people to revolt, will remain unsettled.
Whether it is Egypt, or, for that matter, any other North African or Middle Eastern country experiencing radical political change now or likely to move on the same path in coming weeks or months, despotism has been such a long-standing force that it will be sometime before democratic institutions and traditions and fully established and operative. The Western adjustment process with the emerging democratic reality of the region will likewise take sometime and entail many difficulties.
However, the preference for the outside world, especially the West, should be to make sure that the overall democratization process in the Arab world evolves smoothly in consonance with the due desires of masses in individual countries. If that happens, there is no reason why the consequent political environment in the region will not be conducive enough for meeting Israel’s legitimate security interests, serving genuine commercial needs of the Western world and, above all, reducing the current appeal for and clout of al-Qaeda and other extremist-terrorist forces across the Muslim world.
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