In Poland, President Obama Discusses Irish and European Lessons for the Arab Spring
May 28, 2011 11:53 AM
Having visited two formerly occupied countries where there is now freedom and democracy -- Ireland and Poland – President Obama today ruminated on their lessons for the countries embracing the same values in the so-called “Arab Spring.”
The process, he noted, is "not always smooth. There are going to be twists and turns. There are going to be occasions where you take one step forward and two steps back -- sometimes you take two steps forward and one step back."
What leaders of these changing nations need to do, he said, is first to understand that they have to "institutionalize this transformation," which he described as a potentially difficult and lengthy process.
"It’s not enough just to have the energy -- the initial thrust of those young people in Tahrir Square, or the initial enthusiasm of the Solidarity movement," he said. "That, then, has to be institutionalized and the habits of countries have to change."
Merely holding elections is not enough, he said. A process needs to emerge to establish rule of law and the respect of the rights of minorities, and mechanisms to guarantee freedom of the press and freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Potential ethnic conflicts that may arise need to be brokered.
Another lesson offered by the president was for the American people to understand the importance of the US in helping these countries.
While countries on the outside "cannot impose this change," he said, they can help and facilitate and make a difference.
"The testimony of I think the people that I’ve spoken to here in Poland -- as is true when I had conversations about the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict -- was that American participation, American facilitation of dialogue, our investment in civil society, our willingness to do business, our openness to ultimate membership in international institutions like NATO -- all those things made a difference," he said. "It solidifies, it fortifies people’s impulse that change is possible."
Just last night at a dinner with Central European leaders, one of them recalled that "'There were those who said we could not handle democracy, that our cultures were too different. But America had faith in us. And so now we want to join with America and have faith in those in the Middle East and in North Africa. Even if some don't think that they can handle democracy, or that their cultures are too different, our experience tells us something different.'"
The president called that "a good lesson for all of us to remember."
So "even at a time when we have fiscal constraints, even at a time where I spend most of my day thinking about our economy and how to put folks back to work and how to make sure that we’re reducing gas prices and how we stabilize the housing market and how we innovate and adapt and change so that we are fully competitive in the 21st century and maintain our economic leadership," he said, "I want the American people to understand we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights."
On Saturday, one Polish political leader told the president that "he had lived through three waves of revolutionary transformation in his lifetime. He saw the shift from military rule to democracy in Latin America. He saw those changes then take place with incredible speed when the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was pulled asunder. And now he’s seeing what’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East."
Praise the Arab Spring, prepare for the Arab fall
Tue Jun 14 2011 09:19:06 GMT+0400 (Arabian Standard Time) Oman Time
FOR all the excitement about the twilight of the dictators, only two — Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia — have been officially knocked over since the start of the so-called Arab Spring six months ago. It isn’t even clear whether that count will reach three.
Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh is in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after a bomb in his own presidential palace burned him badly and sent shards of a carved wooden prayer-niche into his body.
It is probable his hosts won’t let him return home, even if he recovers enough to try and rule. But even this result isn’t absolutely certain. If it looks like no one but Saleh can manage to keep Yemen from becoming a failed state and an even better incubator for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, then the Saudis may take steps to restore him to power.
And therein lies a tale: No one knows whether what follows the Arab dictatorships will manage to govern the unruly countries that are in the midst of unrest or civil war. Tunisia and Egypt are relatively homogeneous (though the Coptic minority in Egypt has been badly buffeted in the uncertain transitional period).
But Yemen, Syria, Libya and others are very much like Iraq: powder kegs of potential violence and divided by sect, ethnicity, tribe or some combination. The rulers, through their secret police, kept the peace. The trouble with the Arab Spring is the Arab Fall.
Power of the Generals
If all the change afoot in the Arab world were the product of solid middle-class protestors demanding democracy and then organising it — a vision sometimes hinted at in the US news media, not to mention Al Jazeera — then there would be no problem at all. The truth, though, is that not only are the protestors an unknown quantity, they didn’t even bring down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt on their own.
In both cases, it was the army that removed the rulers from office, after judging that the military’s interests would be better served by siding with “the people” than by shooting them.
Events in Egypt have borne out the view that the army was prepared to negotiate shared power with whoever will be elected — which will probably be a government dominated, though not controlled, by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Tunisia, too, the caretaker army will make sure its power is preserved when a government is eventually chosen.
Elsewhere, public protests have unleashed forces that are very different from Poland’s Solidarity or Eastern Europe’s post-1989 models of peaceful middle-class revolution.
In Yemen, the violence has been between Saleh’s government and its clan rivals. At least one southern city is in outright rebellion. From the time the British left in 1967 to 1990, the country was split in two — a situation that could conceivably recur.
One consolation is that, outside the major cities, the Yemeni government’s writ has never run very far. So in the rural and desert areas, a failed state wouldn’t look very different from what presently exists.
In Libya, public protests that began in January emboldened eastern tribes that had long been neglected by Muammar Gaddafi’s government, which is dominated by their western rivals. They took up arms, though very weakly.
When France and the UK, with the US in tow, intervened — for reasons so surprising they are best saved for a future column — the tribes found themselves with a motive to continue a civil war that would otherwise have been a very short rebellion.
Now the greatest danger is that, if and when Gaddafi is killed or flees, the political and public infrastructure of the country will be so badly damaged that no one will be able to put it back together.
In addition to the warring Arab factions, there are also Berber tribes (the preferred term today is Amazigh) that have their own language, ethnicity and interests.
Sound familiar? In Baghdad in the spring of 2003, days after the looting ended, with ministries in ruins and garbage gathering on the streets, an Iraqi in a poor Shiite neighbourhood asked me, “Who is the government?” There was no good answer — nor would there be for several years.
The destruction of a state is infinitely easier than its reconstruction. The longer it takes to remove Gaddafi, the more the Libyan state is degraded, and the greater the probability that Tripoli will become Baghdad-sur-Mer.
Then there is Syria, where the protests have been brave, broad and sustained — yet have so far failed to penetrate the main middle-class enclaves of Damascus and Aleppo. The protests have, perhaps inevitably, begun to reflect the sectarian difference between the Sunni majority and the Alawite regime. The Alawites have historically made common cause with Christians and Druze (themselves religious sectaries).
The best-case scenario would be a democratic accommodation between elements of the military and people — the present and likely future arrangement in Tunisia and Egypt. But Syria is also capable of collapsing into all-out civil war.
The Alawites, like Saddam Hussein’s Baathists in Iraq, have nowhere else to go, and little reason to expect future good treatment from the people they have spent decades oppressing.
The rise of democratic aspirations in the Arabic-speaking world is inspiring. Muslim democrats are going to get the chance to succeed or fail, and they are most likely to copy the Turkish model of moderation and liberal rights, not religious autocracy.
But democratic transition is almost impossible when a state is weak or failing. Internal divisions make the challenge even harder. Fear of failed nation-building will make external aid scarce.
In retrospect, the successes of Eastern European democratisation were a near-miracle. The rise of the post-dictatorial Arab world may take an actual one.
The author is a law professor at Harvard University. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.