x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Caution on Egypt is best but it won't win Mr Obama praise

Protests in Cairo show a political movement that has little to do with the United States or al Qa'eda

Across the Middle East, dramatic events have been unfolding in rapid-fire succession. The pace, the extent, and the consequences of what has unfolded from Tunisia, to Lebanon, to Egypt, have confronted US policy makers with a difficult set of challenges.

While America remains committed to human rights and political freedom, the imperative to protect national security interests often trumps other concerns. This is especially problematic with the current unrest since the nations involved are led by governments that have been close allies of successive US administrations or are viewed as important to regional stability or broader national security objectives. As a result, in almost every instance, the US has very little leverage (or even contact) with the opposition groups in question. Furthermore, at this point, with the exception of Lebanon and Palestine, much of the dissent in the region has nothing to do with the US, despite the fact that it is closely identified with the governments in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen.

There is concern that too much of an embrace of the protesting movements would appear unseemly or even risk being rejected. On the other hand, it is impossible and equally unseemly to ignore the unrest, the social, economic and political conditions that created it, and the repression with which it was met. At the same time, about all that full throated support for the protests would do is pull the plug on regional allies - opening the door to the unknown.

This is not Eastern Europe, where the Soviet occupation was America's enemy and the democracy movements were our allies. In Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, the hostility of opposition groups to the US is known. In the other states in question, too little is known about the forces driving the protests and even less is clear about how any post-regime scenarios would evolve.

What has been unnerving during this entire period has been the contradictory and in some instances hypocritical way in which some in the US have seized upon these rapid-fire developments in the region. In the US Congress and the media, new champions of Arab democracy have been born overnight. In too many instances, however, I suspect this celebration of the "Arab street" is born more of an anti-Arab animus than of a real commitment to Arab democracy.

Those who call on the US president Barack Obama to break with the Egyptian government and suspend US assistance to their military would recoil in horror should a new government emerge and, following the will of the people, cancel the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel and open ties with Hamas in Gaza. What would the reaction be were the new Tunisian government to suspend anti-terror cooperation with the US?

Evidence that this support for revolution is based more on what these folks don't know, mixed with a dash of anti-Arab sentiment, can be seen in how they deal with the democratically elected Arab leaders or governing groups they do know. There is no cheering from within the US Congress or on the Washington Post editorial page for the new Hizbollah-backed government in Lebanon, the Hamas-led Gaza Strip or the emergent Sadrist bloc currently at the centre of the Iraqi government. In the case of Lebanon and Gaza, there is a taboo placed on any engagement with these groups and calls to suspend all American assistance programmes - all of which appear to undercut a professed commitment to democracy.

In the blitz of recent events, the "Palestine Papers" have been overshadowed. It is not so much that there is anything new in the leaked documents, despite Al Jazeera's hyping of their revelations. Most of the compromises offered, or the behaviours or attitudes manifested, have been known for years. Nor does the release of these inter-office Palestinian memos represent "the final nail in the coffin of the peace process", as some have suggested. That nail was driven in months ago. What these documents do shine a light on, however, is the belief that the Palestinian leadership is "out of touch" with their constituency and a bit too desperate in their dealings with the US and Israel.  They also make clear the degree to which the US has been insensitive to Palestinian needs and impotent in the face of Israeli intransigence.

The complexities of these challenges and the uncertainties associated with each of them have placed a burden on a weakened Obama administration. Two years ago they generated high expectations throughout the Middle East. But during the past two years US policies vis-a-vis a range of regional issues (Palestine, Lebanon, Iran) have appeared more a continuation of the past than hoped for change. Today the administration appears distracted and flat, creating a let-down across the Arab world.

Recognising this is important since it establishes the reality that the US has diminished credibility and capacity. Critics, both liberals and conservatives, who are demanding "bold leadership" from the president, ought to remember their earlier support for "deposing the Iraqi dictator". Not understanding the consequences of that move or the factors driving Iraqi society and having little ability to control what followed (despite having 150,000 troops on the ground), should give these pundits pause. Therefore, it is advisable for policy makers to dismiss the critics and proceed, as they have, with carefully calibrated messages that affirm both principles and interests.


James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington DC