Evolving U.S. Reaction to the Protests in Tunisia and Egypt - Foundation Office Washington, D.C.
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
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.