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Change and More Change: U.S. Policy in the Middle East and North Africa

February 1, 2011

Political transition is occurring in parts of North Africa and the Middle East at an almost dizzying pace, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt. Tunisian president Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali has fled his country after twenty-three years as chief power broker, and president Hosni Mubarak appears increasingly close to relinquishing the power he has held for nearly thirty years.

The core protesters in both countries are young, largely unemployed and disaffected by authoritarian political systems in which corruption is endemic. Protest organizers have relied to a great extent on cell phones and social networking to mobilize thousands of their fellow citizens in mass demonstrations in major cities to demand greater democracy and basic rights of citizenship.

Rami G. Khouri, a veteran Arab journalist and scholar long known to Quakers, published a piece yesterday in which he describes the unfolding transition in this way:

In the long-delayed modern Arab revolt for dignity, rights and freedom, Tunisia was the trigger, but Egypt is the prize. The Arab popular struggle against autocratic security and police states that was finally initiated earlier this month with the revolt that overthrew former Tunisian President Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali has reached a critical point in Egypt during the past three days. Events reached their tipping point Sunday and are likely to lead quickly to a political transition that replaces President Hosni Mubarak with a new leadership that more accurately reflects political sentiments in the country.

Rami Khouri’s full analyis is worth a read.

The transitions occurring in Tunisia and Egypt have placed U.S. policy towards the Middle East under an intense spotlight. Egypt has been a regional cornerstone of U.S. policy since the 1978 signing of the Camp David accords and the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Then-president Anwar Sadat, who signed the agreement on behalf of Egypt, was assassinated two and a half years later. Hosni Mubarak became president and has held that office ever since, buttressed by billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance.

The Obama administration is walking a difficult and fine line. In his State of the Union address last week, the president referred to the changes that are occurring in North Africa by saying:

Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power it must be the purpose behind it. In South Sudan with our assistance the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: This was a battlefield for most of my life. Now we want to be free.”

We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.

As President Obama spoke those words, Egyptians – inspired by their brethren in Tunisia – were taking to the streets seeking to oust President Mubarak, putting decades of U.S. support to the authoritarian and repressive Egyptian regime under the microscope. According to a report yesterday in the Israeli daily Haaretz, the Israeli government has been pressuring the U.S. and other allies of Israel not to push Mubarak from power. At the same time, even former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, now at the Brookings Institution and long-time outspoken supporter of Israel, has called for Mubarak to step down.

Pundits and experts across the country and the world are weighing in on the ongoing political transitions in North Africa and the implications for U.S. policy. One of the most compelling statements we have seen is a January 30th Open Letter to President Barack Obama being circulated for signature by scholars at U.S. colleges and universities. It states in part:

…There is another lesson from this crisis, a lesson not for the Egyptian government but for our own. In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy. On Friday you rightly said that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” For that reason we urge your administration to seize this chance, turn away from the policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. And we call on you to undertake a comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region.

We at FCNL concur with this call for change in U.S. policy.

4 Comments
  1. Ellen N. Duell permalink
    February 1, 2011 12:20 pm

    Bravo to the people of Egypt who are in the streets of major cities, calling for change in their government and for real democracy! It would be wisdom, and show strength of heart, for the USA to stop the sale of military hardware, including tanks, to Egypt and to all other lands, and especially to support democratic change in countries where the majority of the people call for it.

  2. Judith Nappe permalink
    February 2, 2011 1:45 pm

    It may be that the Middle Eastern nations working on real change, maybe even Democracy. The Egyptians are very brave to make their statement in such numbers.

  3. Martha Hale permalink
    February 12, 2011 9:47 am

    Can someone send me a couple of articles telling me about life in today’s Egypt? I don’t mean articles about the extraordinary revolution, I mean life of the people of Egypt. Perhaps like others, I am ashamed at my ignorance. thanks

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