The series of revolutions unfolding across the Middle East — collectively known as the “Arab Spring” — is turning the Middle Eastern political landscape on its head. However, instead of enhancing democracy, these revolutions are putting secular freedom at greater risk.
For the larger part of this year, our government has been supporting and encouraging the revolutionary movements in the region, confident that the anti-government forces that drove out their authoritarian leaders will embrace democratic ideals. After nearly 10 months of U.S. support and encouragement, it’s becoming clear that the Arab Spring is, in fact, a turning point for democracy in the region — a turning point away from democracy.
Few on the world stage liked or trusted Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. It’s good news that their reigns are over. All were despots who victimized their countrymen through political corruption and unbridled intimidation. But these strongmen also served as important counterbalances to the undercurrents of radicalism in their countries and were able to suppress the threat presented by extremists. As the old adage goes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
Since President Obama is now supporting the opposition movements, we must ask these two important questions: “Who will emerge as these countries’ new leaders?” and “What will be their intentions toward the United States?” Though these questions remain unanswered, there is cause for concern.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, newly named the “Freedom and Justice Party,” is positioned to assume control of Egypt’s new government. But the group’s new name and prominence in the country has done little to temper its members’ vitriolic rhetoric. In response to the most recent violence in the Sinai, the group’s leadership released a statement demanding that the Israeli ambassador be expelled from Egypt and that the peace treaty between the two countries be renegotiated. Make no mistake, the Brotherhood’s goal is to fashion Egypt into a 21st-century Islamic society.
In neighboring Libya, the rebels, who can thank NATO for their victory, are poised to inherit Gaddafi’s regime. As in Egypt, signs are emerging that the democratic-loving rebels may abandon their principles once they take power. An alleged draft constitutional charter for Libya’s transitional government has surfaced on the Internet containing a clause stating that “Islam is the Religion of the State, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence [Sharia].” While this alleged charter also contains many items familiar to Western democracies, we have yet to see Islamic law and democracy flourish side by side.
Despite these facts, President Obama has continued to put faith in the good intentions of the rebels. According to published reports, the Obama administration is looking to unfreeze about $37 billion in Libyan assets as a way to get funding to Libya’s Transitional National Council, which the U.S. has recognized as the legitimate authority in Libya. Given the U.S.’s past experience with nation-building, I am wary of any ongoing U.S. support.
In Yemen, opposition forces lit up the streets against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who predictably resorted to the despot’s playbook and violently retaliated against his own people. In June, Saleh was wounded in an attack on his compound and fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment. The power vacuum created by his departure left Yemen in crisis. Although Saleh loyalists continue to hold on, al Qaeda is exploiting the political upheaval. According to an August 12, 2011 article in The New York Times, American officials believe that al Qaeda’s most direct threat to the United States comes from its Yemeni affiliate, which is “capitalizing on the virtual collapse of Yemen’s government to widen its area of control in the country, and is strengthening its operational ties to the Shabab, the Islamic militancy in Somalia, to exploit the chaos in both countries.”
The United States cannot be expected to provide substantial support to regimes whose motives are unknown. This is the dilemma facing President Obama. But instead of looking before he leaps, President Obama is leaping before he looks. The president has taken a number of other foreign policy risks, like stretching out his hand to known enemies of the United States, like Iran. Hopefully, he has learned from those mistakes and will be cautious in his engagement with these emerging governments.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) is a senior member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.