Each time I attend a panel, workshop, forum, conference, symposium, brainstorming session, or congressional session on civil society in the United States, I am disappointed yet optimistic! I am disenchanted because at least since 9/11, the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration has not understood the real dynamics within the Arab and Middle Eastern civil societies. Rather than begging for money from the U.S., civil society actors in this region are asking U.S. policymakers to cease baking the Arab Ceausescus -who kept them in the Dark Age for more than four decades- in order to be able to establish a genuine democracy in the region and enjoy its dividends.
This conventional wisdom drawn from the “cookie cutter” approach currently promoted by the architects of the civil society from within the Department of State will unlikely improve the US image in this region. Indeed, during the session titled the “Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society,” organized by the Department of State under the auspices of Secretary Clinton and to which I was invited on February 16, 2011, I was not surprised by the superficial tone of the head of the U.S. diplomacy when suddenly she raised the issue of the financing of NGOs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by arguing that it is difficult to justify to the American taxpayer the allocations given to NGOs that criticize the United States. Madam Secretary forgot to point out that blackmailing civil society actors with dollar signs is not an intelligent way to promote the rule of law, transparency, good governance, accountability and the acceptance of the principle of a peaceful succession of political power in which an independent civil society should be the main engine of the process. As a taxpayer, I do not believe that my money should be used as a tool of pressure to leverage the political attitude of civil society in the Middle East and North Africa region. The United States must learn to accept criticism coming from the people who do not adhere to U.S. foreign policy, particularly when these people are able to get to office by ballot rather than by bullet. In democracy, power must be balanced by a counter power because, as Lord Acton once said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This sacrosanct rule within the American political arena must not be the exception when the U.S. interests cross-check the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.
In terms of democracy, what is applicable in American context should be tolerable and even desirable abroad. The complete absence of checks and balances within the Arab state structure power generated grievances from ordinary citizens who are no longer able to consent to a policy of mediocrity implemented by their governors and supported by a myopic U.S. policy. Rather than the billions of dollars squandered by the U.S. foreign policy on the so-called “Political and Economic Reforms” in the MENA region, the revolutions of Tunisians and Egyptians were fueled by their blood and their unshaken determination to have a final fight with these inefficient, repressive and most corrupt despots in the region.
Sooner or later, it is likely the tsunami of revolutions will invade other countries in the area, particularly those city-states in the Gulf. The dilemma for the U.S. will be either to back these feudal sheikhdoms at the cost of its credibility or abandon its clients to their tragic end. The second option presupposes that the Obama administration should reconsider its military deployment as people in Bahrain started shouting out slogans demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. Fifth fleet from Manama. The potential U.S. military deployment will be a major challenge for Washington, as traditionally the U.S. foreign policy accommodated itself with the same demands formulated by the Japanese and Koreans who continually question the American military presence in their respective country but denied the same legitimate claims to the Arab people.
Yet, I am optimistic because the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were spontaneous and leaderless movements gathered by the people from the people and for the people. They were neither a duplication of the Bolshevik Revolution nor a “revolution” conceived and directed by Lawrence of Arabia nor an Iranian Revolution led by religious clerics. Mohamed Bouazizi was the trigger and inspiration. One man’s tragic gesture brought two of the harshest dictatorship to their knees.
I am assured that Tunisia is the most well prepared country in the region to pursue a peaceful democratic transition as it has a well-educated middle class. Even during the most difficult and uncertain moments of their uprising, Tunisian people acted with civility and dignity as they buried their victims killed by live ammunition used by Ben Ali’s goon squads, and they rejected all the provocations that sought to portray them as anti-American, though they were beyond anger. They succeeded in using the new communications technology to exhibit the bullets manufactured by the U.S. and employed by Ben Ali’s snipers to kill them. Meanwhile, both our President and Madam Secretary were regrettably off base by encouraging “all parties to show restraint.” In other words, the victims and the aggressor were objectively placed in the same basket!
I am confident that civil societies will find their vibrancy because millions of Tunisians and Egyptians paved the way to the “spring of people” in the MENA region. Men and women continue to struggle for improved societies where they can establish their free associations and exercise their civil liberties. The pursuit to forge a flourishing civil society reveals the self-empowerment of long-oppressed societies no longer willing to be terrified, no longer willing to be dispossessed from their freedom and their basic rights to be treated as full citizens.
Madam Secretary, the Tunisian and Egyptian people do not need money or any kind of assistance to “break through their governments’ firewall.” They have already done it with their modest and rustic know-how. They did not die for money or bread. They sacrificed themselves for the sake of dignity and freedom as the Founding Fathers of the United States did more than two centuries ago. They believe that mankind robbed of dignity is humankind without a soul and does not deserve any respect. Madam Secretary, the road leading Americans to fully understanding the cultures of MENA societies is long and tortuous. We all wish you God speed on your urgent journey.