Arab awakening affects U.S. policy strongly but unpredictably
By Marjorie Arons-Barron
We won’t know for some time the long-term impact of the Arab Spring or which nations will thrive, but, for now, the United States government views Tunisia as a model of what should happen.
That was one message given to the State Department briefing of editorialists from the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers) in Washington.
How the Arab Spring countries evolve toward democracy is key to United States strategic interests, so much so that the State Department has a special coordinator to monitor the transitions. He is William Taylor Jr. (right), named in September to make sure that "assistance to the countries of the Arab revolutions is coordinated and effective."
Tunisia, where the news of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi’s* self-immolation sparked the first national uprising, offers the most promising example. According to Taylor, it has successfully written a constitution and elected a constituent assembly. Its interim government is a coalition of moderate Islamist and secular parties. Tunisia “worked hard, shows moderation and is a model for the region,” Taylor said. "They’re doing the right thing."
Tunisia, with its 10 million people, could be a solid ally in this new Middle East.
Because Tunisia faces a significant deficit in its first budget, the United States is looking to make a $100 million cash transfer, plus $30 million in loan guarantees allowing Tunisia to borrow 10 times that much in the international financial markets, and $20 million in an enterprise fund to leverage private sector investments. Taylor also sees a return of the Peace Corps to Tunisia.
The prospects are not so clear for Egypt, a dramatically larger and more strategically pivotal country, where the U.S. already has a large economic investment. To outside observers and to many Egyptians, the current situation is fraught with peril, but to Taylor, the five preliminary election rounds have been "pretty good ones."
While the Muslim Brotherhood promises to be middle of the road and focus on economics, the United States is waiting to see what kind of government emerges before deciding how to be of assistance. The problem before the anticipated May election, Taylor said during the April 23 briefing, has been that no one has been particularly in charge. Recent raids on non-government organizations (NGO’s) and harassment of bloggers are particularly worrisome threats to stability .
Egypt, home to 85 million people, is also in financial crisis. The U.S. Congress has conditioned future assistance on Egypt’s continuing to adhere to the Camp David Accords’ commitment to Israel and to the continuing transfer of power from military to civilian authorities. But meeting this commitment is not a done deal.
Libya has plenty of money (from oil and gas production, with another $100 billion stashed around the world by Moammar Ghaddafi*) but is far behind in the democratization process. June 23 marks the first election in 40 years. Taylor said, "They don’t know how to create voting lists or even how to handle ballot boxes."
If Libya gets its act together, it could actually be a source of financial assistance for Tunisia and Egypt. The United States is also counting on money from Eurozone and wealthy Arab nations to aid cash-strapped “awakening” nations. But given the parlous economic condition of Europe and the frequent difficulties of Arab states to act in concert, fulfillment of this expectation is unclear.
Down the road, Yemen and eventually Syria may emerge to join those in the transitional office's portfolio. Change in those countries would have the potential to influence the balance of power in the region and the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Obviously the timing is uncertain and the outcomes seriously in question.
Whether the position expressed by our State Department is just optimistic thinking, or rooted in hard reality, will become clearer in the next few months, especially in light of developments with Iran, which were not addressed.
Marjorie Arons-Barron was a print and broadcast journalist, including 20 years as editorial director of WCVB-TV, Boston's ABC affiliate, and is now a blogger and communications consultant.
*Arabic names often translate to English differently. The former Libyan dictator's name, Col. Moammar Gadhafi per the Associated Press Stylebook, as been spelled four or more ways in major media (USA Today is one of several media to report on this).
*The famous Tunisian suicide by fire shows up three or more ways, including Mohammed al-Bouazizi. Database searches sometimes get several variants for the more famous ones but might or might not get Bouazizi if you type Boazazi, both of which appear often, separately, in Nexis. --JRM
The Masthead spring 2012 (c) copyright 2012 by article authors and Association of Opinion Journalists
This page published 4/16/2012 5:15 p.m. CDT at http://www.opinionjournalists.org/index.php?src=gendocs&ref=mh2012mideast