Embassies Dialogue on Asia

December 2011

Policy Brief
The Arab Awakening: Three Perspectives
by Wendy Chamberlin
It is now nearly 11 months since that fateful day last January when Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi succumbed to the burns from his self-immolation, setting off what has come to be called the Arab Spring or, perhaps more accurately, the Arab Awakening. While analysts had for many years warned of the increasing frustration and sclerosis evident in the Arab world, most notably in the UNDP’s Arab Human Development reports, nobody predicted at the time that Bouazizi’s symbolic act would spark the wave of mass uprisings and violent clashes we have witnessed in one country after another. The political earthquake shaking the region will have as much significance for U.S., European, and Asian interests in the Middle East as did the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This paper looks at the events of the Arab Awakening in the region and their impact on Asian, European, and U.S. policy. The Arab Awakening predict what the eventual outcome will be in every country. The early headiness and optimism of Tahrir Square in Egypt and Pearl Midan in Bahrain have given way to a more sober, cautionary outlook as uprisings have faced brutal suppression in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. Egypt — perhaps more properly viewed as a popularly backed military coup — has descended into confusion and frustration over the army’s governing maneuvers to retain power. Violent clashes between demonstrators and police in Cairo on the eve of elections and the daily crackdown and armed battles in Syria reveal the ugly, more realistic face of entrenched regimes determined to hold on to power. However, Tunisia’s successful election and the relatively smooth parliamentary elections in Egypt, along with the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ (SCAF) concession to move up the timetable for presidential elections, gives observers some bit of renewed optimism. Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle; Arab publics have witnessed a so-far largely peaceful transition to democracy in Tunisia, as well as overthrows of long-time Arab rulers in Libya and Egypt. Even in the face of

Summary: The political earthquake shaking the Middle East and North Africa will have as much significance for U.S., European, and Asian interests in the Middle East as did the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This paper looks at the events of the Arab Awakening in the region and their impact on Asian, European, and U.S. policy.

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The popular movement demanding justice, dignity, better governance, and citizen participation that swept the region in the early part of 2011 is far from over, and it is impossible to

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horrendous violence by regime forces, the people are very unlikely to retreat to their homes and quietly endure the too-familiar despair of the pre-revolutionary Arab world. Many observers worry that the confrontations in Syria and Yemen could devolve into full-scale civil wars. Others point to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s recent acceptance of a transfer of power as a positive sign in Yemen. The tougher position taken by Syria’s neighbors in the Arab League and Turkey is a hopeful sign of a new, more involved role for regional powers. In others countries, such as Jordan and Morocco, popular protests have already led to limited political concessions. Whether these will be enough to satisfy the majority is still an open question. What appears more certain, however, is that the region as a whole is inexorably headed toward more open, transparent, and democratic leadership, whether that arrives in six months or six years. This transformation presents several opportunities, as well as challenges, for U.S., European and Asian policymakers. U.S. Perspective In his “Arab Spring” address on May 19, 2011, U.S. President Barak Obama addressed the impact of the Arab Spring on U.S. interests. He acknowledged that a failure to change approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab World. He promised that the United States would continue to support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region. And yet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded her audience in a later speech that such support would take different forms depending on the criticality of other U.S. interests in each particular country. Thus, while the United States has been extremely outspoken of the need for quick change and reform in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, the language has been more muted and diplomatic toward Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, where, respectively, military cooperation, the peace process, and stable oil supplies present critical competing interests. Although U.S. influence in the Arab world is not as great as it once was, by vigorously supporting democratization movements, it can show that it is on the “right side of history,” and put it in good stead with newly emerging regimes. Such appears to be the case in Tunisia and Libya, where the new governments are grateful for U.S. support and welcome U.S. cooperation and assistance. Egyptians view the United States less favorably, but by using its close relationship with the Egyptian military to push for a quicker election cycle, and by not hesitating to criticize the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when necessary, the United States could raise its standing somewhat among the Egyptian public, possibly leading to good cooperation with the eventual elected government. European Perspective In Libya, the NATO intervention proved to be the crucial factor in the rebels’ victory and demonstrated the utility of President Obama’s determination to form multilateral coalitions, this time with the Europeans in the lead. With the United States initially hesitant, France and the U.K. pushed hardest for the imposition of a no-fly zone and bore the brunt of the actual combat sorties during the sixmonth operation. Italy, which formerly had close ties to the Gaddafi regime, saw the writing on the wall and joined its NATO allies in enforcing the liberal interpretation of the UN mandate to protect civilians. In contrast to the NATO allies, Russian policy toward Libya revealed its ambivalence over its interests there and its opposition to NATO intervention. Russian energy giant Gazprom held a huge stake in Libyan oil fields, and Libya under Gaddafi had signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with Russia. Moscow was naturally wary of losing these economic stakes, and hewed to its usual opposition to any Western military actions. And yet, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went against President Vladimir Putin in

The region as a whole is inexorably headed toward more open, transparent, and democratic leadership, whether that arrives in six months or six years.

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defending Russia’s decision to abstain, rather than veto, UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 authorizing all means necessary to protect Libyan civilians. As Stephen Blank, a professor at the U.S. Army War College noted: “The reluctance to oppose intervention probably owed much to the understanding that there was little Moscow could do to stop the NATO operation. But there’s also the point that Russia has benefited from the spike in oil prices caused, at least in part, by the Libyan chaos. Not only does the corresponding increase in Russian government revenues obviate the need to undertake modernizing the political and economic system, but it also allows Putin to advertise Russia’s reliability as a stable energy supplier.” Asian Perspective China was the other permanent member of the Security Council to abstain on UNSCR 1973. Like Russia, China values strategic utility, stability, and its economic interests over the promotion of democratic freedoms in the region, and had some concern over the implications of the Arab uprisings for the already tense relations with its own Muslim minority population. Thus, though China may have tacitly supported, through its abstentions, the NATO — Arab intervention in Libya, it has steadfastly opposed any Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Syria, let alone one that would authorize outside military intervention. On the flip side, experts are divided on the impact of the Arab Awakening on China. One view is that the toppling of tyrants across the Middle East has convinced the leadership in Beijing that even a little freedom is dangerous and can produce domestic instability. On the other hand, the Arab Awakening has revealed the bankruptcy of China’s policy in Africa and the Middle East, that is staying out of local politics and pursuing a “pragmatic” policy that will advance China’s economic interests. The success of a democratically oriented mass movement in achieving regime change is not lost on Asia’s most closed and autocratic regime, North Korea. The government of Kim Jong-il views the fall of Arab autocrats as vindication of its nuclear weapons program. In Pyongyang, Gaddafi was regarded as a fool for giving up his nuclear aspirations. Self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world is not new policy for North Korea. Yet, the Arab Awakening has raised the walls of separation. In an effort to deny access to information about the Arab Awakening, Pyongyang has banned its own citizens in Libya and Egypt from returning home and cancelled direct flights between North Korea and Kuwait, the only Arab country reachable by plane. Nevertheless, Asia offers historical models for the states of the Arab Awakening. South Korea, for example, successfully transitioned from an authoritarian regime to one that embraces liberal democratic values. Fifteen years ago there was deep pessimism about Indonesia’s democratic prospects, but now it has a well-established tradition of representative government. Yet unlike nations in East Asia, Arab countries confront a multiplicity of challenges — they will have to liberalize their economies and political systems simultaneously. Asian success stories will certainly provide insights for Arab countries navigating the transition to democracy, but the parallels are inexact. Challenges Ahead Given the different perspectives of governments in the United States, Asia, and Europe, there are a number of areas for potential cooperation and friction with regard to future policies. In the immediate term, there is a large gap in approach to the conflict in Syria, with the “West” (including Japan and, most notably, Turkey) pushing for Assad to step down, and the Russians and Chinese limiting their calls to ones for opening a dialogue with the opposition. The challenge for the United States and the West is to craft a series of policies that will apply enough pressure on the Syrian regime and its domestic supporters to bring about the regime’s eventual removal, while making sure Russia does not actively try to undermine a sanctions regime. In Egypt, the United States faces many challenges, perhaps the largest being the huge economic resources Egypt will need to grow its economy and start producing more jobs for its youth at a time when there is no domestic political desire in the United States to increase foreign aid. Moreover, while a new Egyptian government is unlikely to immediately abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, the popular attitude in Egypt is far more critical of Israel than the Hosni Mubarak government was, and the United States can expect more


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friction on the Israeli issue with any government that truly represents the will of the people. European countries, on the other hand, enjoy much higher public opinion ratings than the United States in Egypt (particularly Turkey), but will be just as hard pressed to come up with major funding to stabilize the Egyptian economy. The more probable sources of capital sufficient to meet Egypt’s needs for economic development come from China and oil rich Gulf States, which do not share the same democratic values emblematic of the Arab Awakening. China has an enormous stake in the reliability of its oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf in general, importing more than 50 percent of its oil from that area. In addition, China has sent tens of thousands of workers in Libya, Algeria, the UAE, and other Arab countries. China faces many challenges as well. It is not yet clear whether China’s influence across the Middle East would rise in the wake of the Arab Spring. New regimes will need to promote economic growth, and that with Europe in the midst of a financial crisis and the United States mired in debt, the only serious lender will be China. On the other hand, China’s support for overthrown dictatorships has made it unpopular with new regimes. Libya is a case in point. In Syria, where the regime’s grip on power appears ever more tenuous, protesters have burned Chinese flags — a sign that post-Bashar al Assad, new strains will open up between Damascus and Beijing. The Arab Awakening imbued social media platforms that had been previously dismissed with a new role to foment change. It is worth considering that in a global environment of Facebook, Twitter, and cable TV, the impact of government-to-government relations on developing trends may be eclipsed in a way that might have been unthinkable in years past. The political events shaping the region will be formative for U.S., European, and Asian interests in the Middle East therefore continuing to understand the intersection of these perspectives will be critical for future developments. Of course, given the different perspectives to the Arab Awakening from the U.S., Asian, and European perspectives, future policies will inevitably differ.
About the Author
Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin has a long and distinguished diplomatic career. Before becoming President of the Middle East Institute, she was Deputy High Commissioner for the UN Commissioner for Refugees. She has served as Assistant Administrator of the Asia/Near East Division of USAID and held ambassadorships in Pakistan and Laos. In addition, she has worked on the National Security Council staff and held diplomatic postings in Morocco, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Zaire.

About the Embassies Dialogue on Asia
The Embassies Dialogue on Asia was launched by the German Marshall Fund in the fall of 2011. Organized by GMF Transatlantic Fellow Dr. Daniel M. Kliman and sponsored by the South Korean Embassy to the United States, it brings together young American experts on Asia, diplomats from Asia-Pacific embassies, and European diplomats in Washington with portfolios encompassing Asia to create a unique venue for informal discussion. The Embassies Dialogue on Asia is part of GMF’s Asia Program, which addresses the implications of Asia’s rise for the West through a combination of convening, writing, strategic grants, study tours, fellowships, and partnerships with other institutions. For more information, see http://www.gmfus.org/asia.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm. GMF is grateful for the support of the South Korean Embassy in Washington, DC, which made this brief possible.


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