Issue brief: Arab Spring

Tunisians celebrate on December 17, 2011 in Sidi Bouzid's Mohamed Bouazizi Square, named after the fruit seller whose self-immolation one year ago today sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator and ignited the Arab Spring. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

The Electoral Issue:

Beginning in Tunisia in 2010, a wave of protests swept across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling entrenched leaders in some countries and leading to bloody, protracted conflicts in others. The protests have fed both hopes of democratization and fears of dangerous instability.

The Challenge:

To embrace and encourage democratic aspirations in the region while ensuring that the new governments continue to serve America's interests and those of our allies.

Problems:

Embassy Attacks

On September 11, 2012, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In Egypt, protesters scaled the embassy and tore down the American flag, replacing it with an Islamist flag. In Libya, by the morning of September 12, four Americans had been killed in the attack in Benghazi, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.

Emerging evidence suggested that the Benghazi attack was not a spontaneous event but rather a premeditated attack by armed commandos. The protests erupted in response to an online video promoted by Florida pastor Terry Jones (who had previously caused international tensions by threatening to burn the Qur'an) that mocked Islam and the prophet Mohammed.

Before the violence erupted and the embassies were breached, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt issued a statement condemning "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslim." Although the statement was later disavowed by the Obama Administration after the ensuing violence, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama both unequivocally condemning the attacks, GOP Nominee Mitt Romney called the response "disgraceful," saying the United States should not apologize for "American values."

The Obama administration blasted Romney for politicizing the tragedy, saying through a spokesperson, "We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack."

Egypt & the Muslim Brotherhood

In late January 2011, thousands of Egyptians flooded the streets of Cairo, protesting almost 30 years of autocratic rule under President Hosni Mubarak. By February 11, 2011, Mubarak stepped down and an interim military government stepped in to manage a transition to electoral rule. After some delay, the first-ever Presidential Election in June 2012 was held. The winner was Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was repressed under Mubarak and generally seeks a greater role for Islam in public life.

On the eve of the election, the military dissolved the parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and claimed control over the drafting of a permanent constitution. Morsi pushed back, denying the Military's authority over the constitution and firing the Defense Minister and several senior military officials in a move to reassert civilian rule.

Although Mubarak was seen as a dictator by many, he was also a staunch U.S. ally that upheld a peace treaty with Israel and generally aligned with U.S. interests. In return, the United States provided billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt, the largest Arab country and a cultural center of the Arab world. If the Egyptian government under the Muslim Brotherhood lurches too dramatically toward a hard-line, theocratic, and anti-Western character, and if other new governments follow suit, some worry about what the ascendance of political Islam across North Africa and the Middle East would mean for American values and interests in the region.

Syria

In March 2011, scarcely a month after Mubarak was deposed, Syria erupted in its own civil unrest, with anti-government demonstrators in many cities protesting the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Al-Assad's reign had been marked by the use of political violence to intimidate dissidents into silence. The protests quickly metastasized and the government reacted violently, sending tanks and troops to quell the uprising in numerous cities. When significant portions of the Syrian Army defected to the rebellion, the protests quickly devolved into all-out civil war.

By the summer of 2012, thousands were dead, the international community (including much of the Arab world) had almost wholly abandoned Assad, and policymakers from Amman to Paris to Washington began seeking Assad's ouster, believing only a transition of power and a governing stake for the rebels could mollify the uprising. Several ceasefire agreements have been hastily instituted and just as quickly abandoned.

Aside from the obvious humanitarian crisis that resulted, with thousands dead and thousands more fleeing to neighboring countries, Syria's instability also offered a foothold for Al Qaeda, which may have been involved in several suicide bombings in 2012. The escalating violence presents a crisis for the international community, which is attempting to facilitate regime change despite the objection of Syrian allies Russia and China, which have nixed more robust United Nations intervention.

Israel's Security

Among Israel's Arab neighbors, only two countries, Egypt and Jordan, have officially recognized the Jewish state - Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978 and Jordan followed suit in 1994. In the wake of the Arab Spring, which unseated one regime in Egypt and unsettled another in Jordan, Israel is understandably wondering just how unfriendly their neighborhood is likely to become.

While Jordan under King Abdullah has largely avoided the dramatic upheaval that ransacked other countries in the region, Egypt's regime change has called into question the relationship between Israel and its western neighbor, the world's largest Arab country.

Under Mubarak and his predecessor, Egypt fully honored the peace treaty, often against the wishes of large swaths of Egyptian society, particularly the Islamists whom Mubarak brutally repressed. Will the new regime continue to honor the 1978 accord in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood's markedly more hostile tone toward Israel?

Despite assurances from Washington that the Muslim Brotherhood will honor Egypt's diplomatic obligations, including the treaty with Israel, conflicting reports have emerged: some Muslim Brotherhood officials have suggested putting the treaty to a popular referendum, allowing the Egyptian people to retain or scrap it. Newly elected President Morsi has reportedly mulled amending the treaty to increase Egypt's military presence in the Sinai peninsula.

Power Vacuum & Al Qaeda

What began in Tunisia quickly spread across North Africa and the Near-East, to Egypt and Libya, to Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and several other countries. This political renaissance offers the possibility of democratization and revitalization, but also poses the threat of a dangerous power vacuum in one of the world's most unstable, conflict-torn regions. A rising tide of anti-American political Islam, and an absence of political stability that could provide terrorists with safe haven. Al Qaeda. Yemen is primed to provide a foothold for Al Qaeda on the Arabian peninsula, absorbing the elements of the terrorist syndicate that have fled the Afghanistan-Pakistan region due to the American military presence there. Shortly after the fall of Libyan Col. Moammar Qaddafi, the Al Qaeda flag was flown over a courthouse in Benghazi, the heart of the Libyan rebellion.

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  • Jake Miller

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