Missing the Arab Awakening

On January 25, Egyptians marked the one-year anniversary of their revolution with another massive demonstration in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of what has become known variously as the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening, or the Arab Uprising. Whatever term one chooses for the events that began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor in December 2010 and soon swept through Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria—the last year has marked a decisive shift in the modern history of the Arab world. Though the situations in different countries have and will continue to take different paths, the people of the region have voiced their unmistakable rejection of the political and economic arrangements that have dominated their countries for decades.

But what of the United States' role in the current era of transition? As I wrote in The American Prospect one year ago, the Egyptian uprisings offered President Barack Obama an opportunity to make good on the unfulfilled promise of his historic June 2009 speech at Cairo. While the Obama administration had initially downplayed democracy promotion—an understandable but unfortunate overcorrection in the wake of the Bush administration’s troubled “freedom agenda”—the uprising offered a chance to move away from a Middle East policy in which political freedom was subordinated to the perceived imperatives of counter-radicalism and toward a more measured opening of political systems to greater participation and accountability.

The administration’s response has not been as robust as one would have hoped. This is understandable, given the myriad challenges the Obama administration has faced. But it also raises the question: Is the U.S. going to squander the opportunity to help shape the ongoing transitions in the Arab world? Are we going to miss this boat? Can the U.S. play a similar role to what it played in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union? Supporting the political transitions in post-Soviet countries and facilitating the economic reintegration of Europe stands as one of the great historic accomplishments of U.S. foreign policy, but one that required considerable economic commitment and diplomatic energy. Similarly facilitating the democratic transition in the Arab world would be an accomplishment every bit as important and consequential. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to happen, for two main reasons.  

The first is the economic crisis. In a time of austerity and shrinking budgets, there is a real question of whether the United States can, even if it chose to, marshal the economic resources needed to effectively assist these transitions. There’s also a question of whether doing so would be politically feasible in an era where every budget disagreement seems to blow up into a crisis.

The irony is that there’s actually little evidence that Americans dislike the idea of foreign aid as a rule; indeed, recent polling found that Americans actually believe we should spend more. While a 2010 poll found that six out of ten Americans believe that the U.S. spends “too much” on foreign aid, respondents tended to vastly overestimate the amount of foreign aid as a portion of the federal budget, with the median estimate being 25 percent. Respondents put the appropriate amount of aid at about 10 percent of the budget—ten times as much as the current 1 percent.


“The economic environment undoubtedly has a huge impact on our reaction” to the Arab Spring, says Steve McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Many in Egypt and other countries in the region feel that the U.S. and the international community are not stepping up and providing them with support that is commensurate with the moment.”  These countries are facing their own economic crises, McInerney says, but many question whether the U.S. is in a position to help and point out that several years ago, the response would have been on a larger scale. “Compare this to the reaction to ’89-’90, when the U.S. provided billions in support to European transitions to democracy.” McInerney gives the Obama administration marks for effort, but fears it may not be enough. “They did create a $160 million fund for the region, but that’s really small potatoes.”  They’ve also tried to mobilize funds from the Gulf states, but the deliverables have been much less than hoped for. “The administration has tried to do what it can with very limited resources, but it’s not sufficient to meet the challenges of the moment,” he says.

But even in a better economic environment, what is the likelihood that a portion of this much-fought-over fraction of the federal budget would be committed to the Arab transition? Unlike with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, where the perception was that our enemy lost and its former subjects all of a sudden wanted to wear blue jeans and Yankees caps—and thus committing resources a fairly easy sell—the perception now among many Americans, including many politicians, is that our allies have fallen, and our radical Islamist enemies are on the rise. The past ten years of often-hysterical debate over the threat of Islamic extremism has not predisposed Americans toward supporting aid to what many see as those same extremists now entering the political process. Looking forward, McInerney says, “there’s lots of uncertainty in how Congress might respond” to the administration’s efforts to engage with Islamist parties after years of refusing to interact with Islamists. “And of course there’s a presidential election,” he says.

There’s also a question of how much help Egyptians actually want from the U.S. “The demonization ran both ways,” acknowledges Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation. “But the Muslim Brotherhood has been pretty flexible in relation to the U.S. I don’t think they’re going to make hostility to the U.S. a calling card. They realize how much they need the rest of the world, particularly on the economic front.”

McInerney agrees. “There’s definitely some skittishness” about working with the U.S., he says, something that existed to a far lesser degree in post-Soviet Eastern Europe.  “We have a legacy that hurts us in Egypt, on all sides. … Many Egyptian activists who helped foster this revolution, they saw the U.S. first as the primary backer of the Mubarak government and also as the architect of negative policies in the region, whether the war in Iraq, or its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He adds that “the actors that are most interested in serious dialogue with the U.S. right now are the Islamists.”

Given the legacy of U.S. foreign policy in the region, developing a coherent approach for engaging productively with newly powerful regional actors is difficult enough. Considering both the tenor of the debate over the budget and the problem of Islamic radicalism, the challenge appears almost insurmountable. But it must be overcome. A Middle East populated by legitimate, responsible, and accountable governments is clearly in the interest of the United States. It would be an enormous tragedy if the U.S. watched the opportunity to help support that outcome sail by.