Evolving U.S. Reaction to the Protests in Tunisia and Egypt

von Dr. Norbert Wagner, Michal Machnowski
„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.“ (President Obama, State of the Union Address, January 25th, 2011)


One day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned

Arab states that they risked “sinking into the sand” if they did

not clean up corruption and quicken their glacial pace of

political and economic reform, one of the Arab world’s longreigning

leaders proved those statements correct. With

Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali having fled Tunisia,

the North African country he ruled in autocratic fashion for 23

years, chased away by a month of street protests that started in

provincial cities but engulfed the capital, the United States has

begun voicing cautious support for the Tunisian “Jasmine


Secretary Clinton’s comments reflected the growing frustration

at the slow pace of change in the region since President Obama

delivered his speech to the Arab and Muslim world in 2009. In

the speech, President Obama emphasized the important role

that democratic reform and expanding economic opportunity

would have to play in building a stable and prosperous region.

Secretary Clinton’s speech also echoed the tough views of U.S.

officials who believe that while some progress is being made in

certain Arab countries, for example in expanding civil society,

but democratic reforms and anticorruption steps have been

lagging and possibly fomenting a wave of instability in the

region. Though Tunisia is one of the most repressive regimes in the

region, it is a U.S. partner against terrorism and Tunis is home to a

regional office for the State Department's democratic reform efforts.

Speaking recently from the State Department, Secretary Clinton

stated: “I have spoken to the (Tunisian) foreign minister and to

the interim prime minister, the prime minister as recently as

this weekend. I’m encouraged by the direction that they are

setting toward inclusive elections that will be held as soon as

practicable. But there’s a long way to go. But, there’s no

experience. There’s no institutional muscle memory about how you do this. And, the United States, European Union, United Nations, and other organizations around the world that want to

see this transition successful and leading to a democratic

vibrant outcome are offering whatever help we can. In fact,

Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is in

Tunisia right now meeting with a full cross section of Tunisians

to hear from them firsthand how they want to see this process

unfold,” Secretary Clinton remarked at the State Department on

Wednesday, January 26th.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey

Feltman has been sent to Tunisia to underscore U.S. support for

efforts there to transition from authoritarian rule to democracy,

and is offering the Tunisian authorities assistance in organizing

promised elections. The dispatch of Assistant Secretary

Feltman underscores U.S. interests in seeing a peaceful and

democratic outcome to the political upheaval.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley stated that the

assistant secretary will seek a “first hand view” of the situation

and sound out the new authorities on how the U.S. can assist in

building a stable democracy. “We support the transition that is

underway, and we hope that this transition will be peaceful. We

understand that Tunisian civil society has questions about the

nature of the government. Clearly after decades of mistrust,

there are questions that the people continue to raise. The

government is trying to be responsive. We know this is hard.

And we know that the government will at times have missteps

along the way,” said Mr. Crowley.

While Mr. Crowley has said that U.S. officials are encouraged by

steps the interim government has taken to begin dialogue with

civil society groups, release political prisoner and ease media

abuse and restrictions, he underlines the point that there is still

much to be done. Mr. Crowley stated that part of Assistant

Secretary Feltman’s mission will be to evaluate how the U.S. can

support the electoral process in Tunisia, perhaps through

technical assistance by U.S. non-governmental groups that

have been active in democratization efforts elsewhere.

President Obama has hailed the “courage and dignity of the

Tunisian people” and said that the United States joined the rest

of the world in “bearing witness to this brave and determined

struggle.” The President called on the interim Tunisian government to “hold free and fair elections in the near future

that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people

and give life to the principle of democracy in its own way,

grounded in the tradition of its own people.”

During the recent State of the Union, President Obama reflected

on the protests that were culminating in Tunisia and just

starting in Egypt, and stated that: “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.”

Just as in Tunisia, Egypt has also been engulfed by the spread

of massive protests. Tens of thousands of anti-government

protesters have clashed with police in Cairo and other cities in

the largest demonstrations in Egypt in a generation, with

demonstrators wanting an end to President Mubarak’s nearly

30 years of power.

While the situations in Tunisia and Egypt are distinct, they share

some factors, like a population frustrated by a lack of political

participation, along with high unemployment and a large,

frustrated youth population. Egypt’s trade minister on Tuesday

insisted that the “Tunisian scenario” could not play out in

Egypt, saying conditions are different and that Egypt was

committed to maintaining food subsidies to keep prices low.

Dr. Achy of the Carnegie Middle East Center acknowledged that

some of the factors increasing pressure on the Tunisian

population are not replicated in Egypt: Tunisia’s population has

a higher level of education than Egypt’s, particularly among the

unemployed, he says, while Tunisia also has much tighter

regulation of the informal sector. Tunisia’s population is also more urbanized than Egypt’s, with more people living in midsized

cities – and thus having higher aspirations for their lives.

Yet Egypt does have a huge youth population: 60 percent of

Egyptians are under 30. The official unemployment rate in

Egypt is about 9 percent (though the actual rate is likely

higher), about 90 percent of whom are younger than 30. Youth

are growing restless under the rule of an aging President

Mubarak, who has increasingly clamped down on dissent in the

past year.

Secretary Clinton has stated that the U.S. believed that the

government of Egypt was stable and looking for ways to meet

the Egyptian people’s aspirations. “With respect to Egypt,

which like many countries in the region has been experiencing

demonstrations, we know that they’ve occurred not only in

Cairo but around the country, and we’re monitoring that very

closely. We support the fundamental right of expression and

assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise

restraint and refrain from violence.”

Critics argue that this is more of the same, saying Washington

is again giving lip service to freedom, democracy and justice.

“This is Egyptians people chance to finally show the world that

what we are calling is for real, and for Washington and Clinton

to squirm away from real support, is unjust and frustrating,”

said one demonstrator. The demonstrator remembered when

President Obama spoke out in favor of Iranian activists, “but

this time around, in Tunisia and Egypt, there is little overt

support for the anti-government protests. Our leaders are

horrible, just as bad as Iran, but they are liked by Washington,

so it is us who suffer twice, when we go to the streets and then

when we try to have a voice internationally.”

Others say it is a fine line the United States government must

take in order to not show overt support for the demonstrators,

while maintaining channels with the Egyptian government.

Secretary Clinton also mentioned that the wide-spread

government protest over poverty and government repression in

Egypt represented an opportunity for President Mubarak to

implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to

the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. In a

blunt manner, Secretary Clinton said that the Mubarak

government should not prevent peaceful protests or block

social networking sites such as twitter or Facebook, which has

helped Egyptian’s spread news about the unrest and protests.

However, security forces have continued to confront protesters

and Facebook and Twitter are still reporting disturbances to

their services in Egypt.

In response, the United States urged Egyptian President Hosni

Mubarak to make political reforms in the face of peaceful

protesters demanding his ouster. Secretary Clinton delivered

the stronger message at a recent news conference with the

foreign minister of Jordan, and suggested Egypt's government

had to act now if it wanted to avert a similar outcome and

urging it not to crack down on peaceful protests or disrupt the

social networking sites that help organize and accelerate them.

"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an

important opportunity at this moment in time to implement

political, economic and social reforms to respond to the

legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,"

Secretary Clinton said in the statement.

The general concern is that a wave of upheaval could uproot

valuable allies like Egypt, who are considered a linchpin in the

area as opposed to a peripheral player such as Tunisia. As the

first Arab state to make peace with Israel, Egypt has much

greater strategic importance to the United States than Tunisia.

Egypt has long received major U.S. aid and supported

Washington's efforts to promote a wider Arab-Israeli peace. In

interviews in recent days, officials acknowledged that the

United States had limited influence over many actors in the

region, and that the upheaval in Egypt, in particular, could

scramble its foreign-policy agenda.

Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations said Secretary

Clinton's remarks for the first time appeared to make clear

what the United States wants to see in Egypt: genuine change

that originates from the government rather than a dramatic

overthrow as occurred in Tunisia.

"This is not a walking away from the alliance with Egypt in any

way but, at the same time, putting the Egyptian government on

notice that changes are going to have to come pretty quickly,"

Mr. Danin said."It is trying to lay out a way there can be

managed change if the regime is responsive to the people," he

said. "It (the Obama administration) doesn't want to see the

means adopted in Tunisia -- which would necessitate the

leadership to flee.”

So the U.S. is proceeding cautiously, balancing the democratic

aspirations of young Arabs with cold-eyed strategic and

commercial interests. That sometimes involves supporting

autocratic and unpopular governments — which has turned

many Arab youth against the United States.

While Tunisia and the Egyptian government are crucial allies to

Washington, the population is very suspicious of American

motives, and the potential for Islamic extremism lurks. “These

countries are going to go at a different pace,” said Daniel B.

Shapiro, a senior Middle East adviser on the National Security

Council. “One couldn’t, or shouldn’t try, to come up with a

cookie-cutter ideal of how to approach it.