Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The end of the West's duplicity in a transforming Middle East?

By Beverly Crawford

Post co-authored by Beverly Crawford and Nora Reikosky.

Like the collective gasp of horror heard round the world on 9/11, we now hear a global sigh of relief at the news of Osama bin Laden's demise. President Obama tells us that we can all breathe easier now. But can we?  Will Osama's death mark an end to the hemorrhaging of our treasure in the "war on terror" and allow for healing in the relationship between the West and Islam?  The United States missed a golden opportunity to build on the world's empathy after 9/11.  And by the time he was finally killed, Osama bin Laden had become an irrelevant has-been.  His legacy is outstripped by the recent history of millions of Arabs demanding freedom from brutal dictators.  Caught by complete surprise[1] in the cascade of protests, the U.S. and Europe are rightly accused of coddling the very regimes now toppled by their own people--or still resisting their inevitable downfall. The West has a long and unflattering history of propping up lawless police-states while preaching democracy and the Rule of Law. Energy security, the protection of American economic "interests" and strategic military bases, and the "threat" of communism and even socialism historically provided weak excuses for this hypocracy.  This time, the aid to brutal dictators--the "friends" that we bought--was rationalized as necessary to counter the terrorism that bin Laden unleashed.   But ironically, lavish Western aid to these dictators fed the resentment that al Qaeda transformed into acts of terror.  Beyond the West's counterproductive duplicity, however,  is a story that hid in the shadows:  the support and encouragement from all Western corners that strengthened the courageous protesters.  And therein lies a tale of a second golden opportunity if we are willing to take it.  That tale should be told.

Unwittingly, the West encouraged the revolutions that overthrew the brutal regimes it had so carefully attempted to stabilize.  Europe and the United States nourished and encouraged  Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who were key participants in the popular uprisings that drove iron-fisted dictators from power. Of course the West cannot take credit for those uprisings, and, as we note below, its legacy of aiding ruthless and corrupt regimes continues to create tremendous barriers to democracy movements as they move forward.[2]  But the West can now build on its behind-the-scenes support for the courageous revolutionaries of the Arab Spring.  It can only do so, however,  if it gives up its dangerous obsession with terror and if it refuses to prop up repressive rulers as a means to counter it.

Western aid to these revolutionaries came from many streams in both Europe and The United States. In 1995, in the largest financial commitment the European Union ever made outside its borders, a partnership between the EU and all states bordering on the Mediterranean Sea was formed. The bold and unprecedented aim of that partnership was creation of a Mediterranean "region of peace and stability."  Within this Euro-Med Partnership, the EU launched a set of economic, cultural, and social initiatives intended to promote civil society and to create a “dialogue of civilizations” in the Mediterranean region--not the least of which was a dialogue among Arabs and Israelis.  Hopes were dashed after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process shattered, but the dialogue continued.  After 2001, a fervent hope again emerged that this dialogue--in conjunction with trade and regional development efforts-- could eradicate root causes of terrorism that went far beyond bin Laden and al Queda. To promote this "dialogue of peoples," millions of Euros flowed from the EU to nurture and promote networking among North African and Middle Eastern women’s groups, trade unions, lawyers associations, students, human rights groups, journalists, writers, artists, youth groups, and filmmakers--to name just a few. In the United States, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the AFL-CIO, Freedom House, and a plethora of American foundations provided similar support to NGOs in order to cultivate a "civil society" in the North Africa and Middle East.  Throughout the region, these groups flourished, proliferated and connected with one another across ethnic, religious, and national divides.  Ironically Western governments and Middle Eastern dictators alike considered these groups to be non-threatening to the stability of regimes in power.  But they were wrong.

In fact, the courage and political power of these groups exposed the West's duplicity.  To downplay that duplicity, politicians had long called these regimes simply "soft dictatorships."   Our governments and corporations expanded trade with them and spoke smugly of their growing economies.  But, in fact, the popular uprisings of 2010-2011 caught Western leaders in bed with murderous tyrants. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that ousted Egyptian dictator Mubarek was a “force for good,” and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in 2009: “I really consider [Egyptian] President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”  Even as Tunisian protests gathered force, French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called for France's military to support Ben Ali’s corrupt regime.  Indeed, she had borrowed a private jet from Ben Ali’s close friend for her recent Tunisian vacation.  Generous Western aid propped up these tyrants despite their lawlessness and unabashed brutality. In Egypt, for example, the Obama administration spent just $20 million a year on “democracy promotion” while lavishing $1.3 billion annually in military aid on Mubarek’s regime.  When Mubarak complained that human rights groups were becoming a nuisance to him, the Obama administration halted the meager official aid that supported them. Western leaders looked the other way when Arab rulers ignored “good governance” conditionality clauses in trade agreements, when they jailed, tortured, and killed journalists who cried out against repression, when they ruthlessly attacked the leaders and members of opposition political parties, and when their security forces—bolstered, of course, with Western funding-- committed unspeakable acts of routine and pervasive brutality.  It is no wonder that the Arab Spring caught the West by surprise: it turns out that denial is not a river in Egypt.

When confronted with their duplicity, Western diplomats invoked Osama bin Laden.  They whined that Ben Ali, Mubarek, Saleh and others had seduced them with threats that, unless dollars and Euros continued to fill their coffers, their secular-Islamist regimes would be overrun by radical Muslims.  Without aid, they cried, al Queda would run amok and their lands would turn into terrorist breeding grounds. Europeans trembled at the prospect of immigrant hordes storming northern Mediterranean shores unless the EU coughed up more military and economic aid for security forces and “economic development” that promised to keep these hordes in check.  The bulk of both U.S. and EU aid to the region went to buttress corrupt dictators in the belief that they were necessary to maintain social and political stability. Stable regimes in North Africa and the Middle East would, they reasoned, provide a bulwark against dreaded Al Qaeda terrorism and unchecked emigration. These police states were, in the words of one analyst, "too big to fail."

Financial support to civil society groups continued to flow and it was minuscule when compared with the billions in Western military and economic aid that dictators consumed.  And while refusing to support opposition parties and Islamic groups, the U.S. and the EU were content to aid only seemingly innocuous groups in the belief that they would pose no threat to the dictators they coddled and the social "stability"  they promised.  Funding women and "youth," they believed, was an especially non-threatening activity. This belief could not have been further from the truth.

In fact, the little funding that was earmarked to build "civil society" went a long way.  It helped spark political awareness among women, youth, labor, and professional groups, and strengthened coalitions among them to build a critical mass that could no longer tolerate repressive regimes. The U.S. AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, for example, actively supported the Labor Union movement in Tunisia.  The Euromediterranean Human Rights Network worked with the Tunisian Lawyers and Magistrates Associations on civil liberties and human rights issues. The Bahrain Youth Society For Human Rights (BYSHR) has a liason office in Norway and is, in part, supported by the Norwegian-based Arab-European Center for Human Rights and International Law.  In Yemen, Women Journalist Without Chains (WJWC) received support from the EU and the NED in order to report on government corruption and human rights abuses.  While official aid for human rights groups only trickled in, private support filled the gap  And many women and youth NGOs and journalists saw the promotion of human rights and freedom of information as a central mission.

A small but steady stream of aid funded the diffusion of  information technology vital to the growth of the social networking culture that gave protesters unfettered communication capabilities and created new public spaces uncontrolled by the ruling elite and provided outlets for expressions of  solidarity, both with groups inside their countries and with others in the region and beyond.  For example, the Euro-Mediterranean Information Society Initiative (EUMEDIS) provided information technology to seemingly innocuous non-political NGOs throughout the region.  Funded by grants from the U.S. and the Austrian Government, Women Without Borders (WWB), an organization geared toward women’s empowerment, financed a host of political empowerment projects including one focused on the dissemination of information technology as a tool to strengthen women's political leadership capabilities.   WWB also works in partnership with WJWC.   Similarly, the NED provided funding for “The Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth,” permitting it to expand the use of new media among youth activists in order to promote “democratic ideas and values.”  And together with Freedom House and a German foundation, the NED funded The Egyptian Democratic Academy , a Youth non-profit Organization established to promote the values of freedom of opinion and expression, openness, and political and religious tolerance in Egypt. In particular, the group focused on “using New Media tools to promote Democracy and Human Rights with a special interest in the participation of the groups who are most subject to marginalization, such as women, children, and disabled in the political and public life.”

Networking among civil society groups in their respective countries, within the region, and with their counterparts in Europe and the U.S. was a vital aspect of Western support and was crucial in building the coalitions that spread the protest.  Each year the EU funded hundreds of training sessions, conferences and workshops throughout North Africa and the Middle East aimed at bringing together NGOs to develop coordinating mechanisms, and promote discussion and debate among them at both the national and regional levels. In Egypt the NED funded the Arab Society for Human Rights (ASHR) held a series of annual workshops to promote “legal awareness among journalists about freedom of expression under Egyptian laws and encourage greater and better informed media coverage of human rights issues.” In Yemen, the EU supported seminars led by WJWC  to promote press freedom.   In effect, even tiny amounts of  European and American aid, support, and transnational networks helped civil society groups to educate citizens (especially women and youth) about their human rights, support workers’ rights, encourage youth activism, strengthen leadership skills across groups, conduct civic and political training programs, monitor human rights violations, maintain web sites to share information, encourage anti-corruption campaigns, share grievances, learn about groups like them around the world, and much more.

It is no surprise, then, that we saw many of these same NGOs boldly leading and participating in the protests of the "Arab Spring."  And today we see many of them participating together in the democratic process in Egypt and Tunisia. Supported by the Euromediterranean Human Rights Network, the Tunisian unions and the Lawyers and Magistrates Associations played a key role in the December-January protests, and they continue to be an important force in shaping the post- Ben Ali government.  In Egypt, The Egyptian Democratic Academy was at the forefront of the historic January protest in Tahir Square.  Co-founder of the Facebook group the "April 6 Movement" and jailed by Mubarak’s regime in 2008 for organizing protests in support of labor unions, the group’s media director, Esraa Abdel Fattah, is now meeting with the interim Egyptian cabinet and the military on a regular basis.

This participation will be crucial in determining the future of democracy in the region.  Serving as intermediaries between individuals and the state, these autonomous NGOs are the backbone and nerve centers of civil society, and a strong civil society is the sine qua non of a viable democracy.  As Timur Kuran has written, "it is largely through civil society that citizens protect their rights as individuals, force policy makers to accommodate their interests, and limit abuses of state authority. Civil society also promotes a culture of bargaining and gives future leaders the skills to articulate ideas, form coalitions and govern." [2] Autonomous NGOs are the agents of that process.

We continue to see NGOs courageously demonstrating and reporting abuse in the continuing protests against repression in Barain and Yemen.  In Bahrain, BYSHR has been an active participant in the anti government protests, steadily reporting torture and abuse and urging international human rights groups to protest the trials against demonstrators and protest the government crackdowns on social media.   Tawakui Karman, founder of WJWC,  is an activist and a leader on the front lines of the youth protest movement in Yemen.  WJWC fearlessly continues to report instances of government violence against journalists and protesters. Nadia al-Sakkaf, an active member of the Women Without Borders network is the Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times , considered one of the strongest forces in the country for exposing government corruption.

Like labor and human rights leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, their courage is not without consequence:  Since 2007 BYSHR leaders have been harassed and arrested; the organization’s president, Mohammed Al-Maskati was beaten by security forces during the protests, and both he and board member Naji Fateel have received death threats since the protests began. In Yemen, Tawakul Karman has repeatedly been jailed and beaten, and continues to receive death threats.

This is, of course no surprise.  Timur Kuran  gloomily predicts that, because dictators spent the past half-century silencing, suppressing, banning, co opting, and emasculating autonomous organizations in Arab society. independent NGOs have only played a marginal social and cultural role, signaling the weakness of civil society.  And Shariah law has long held no place for autonomous and self-governing private organizations in Islamic culture and social organization.  Furthermore, he writes, "a historically rooted preference for personal interactions limits the significance of organizations..."   For these reasons, he argues, the embryonic civil society that nurtured these protesters is not strong enough to sustain democratic governance.

The West’s monomaniacal focus on Islamic extremism and duplicitous  practice of shoring up dictatorships while simultaneously helping to create the vibrant pluralist societies that toppled them only magnified the shortcomings that Kuran enumerates.  And the irony that tiny amounts of aid were funneled to groups deemed harmless to Western-supported dictators will not be lost on the new political forces that are shaping the Middle East.   Some commentators rightly claim that Western promotion of civil society was intended to undermine Islamic identity in the region. Aid targeted only to secular organizations left out a large body of Islamist opposition, including moderate groups essential to the democratic process. Certainly, no Western aid went to support the creation of mechanisms for effective electoral competition. And the preference for funding those organizations with ties to international NGOs and Western foundations may carry the stigma of neo-colonialism that many in the Middle East and North Africa have long resisted.

All the more reason why the West must now renounce its own longstanding support for Arab dictatorships and ramp up support for the NGOs that have begun to create a real civil society in the Arab world.  And it must quickly offer support for new organizations that are now sprouting up.  I disagree with Kuran that these NGOs played only a marginal role in the Arab Spring. Yes, that role may have been muted and exercised only behind the scenes.  But for many years, leaders of these organizations were nurtured through conferences and training workshops that taught them the skills to articulate and spread the ideas and form the coalitions that gave rise to the protests of 2010 and 2011. Their organizations exposed corruption and abuse, empowered the consciousness of women and youth, and tirelessly taught citizens about their their rights as individuals.  Civil society has been planted, and now it is imperative that it take root and flourish.

Osama bin Laden faded long before he died.  The real history of the Middle East in the 21st century is being written in the revolutions of the Arab Spring.  The final chapter of these revolutions  is yet to be drafted. The West’s relationship with the people of North Africa and the Middle East can support a stable and healthy democratic future.   Clearly, protesting is not governing.  Emboldened protesters must have a seat at the table in the process of creating democratic governing structures. The West can now choose to see bin Laden's death as a watershed, transforming the very meaning and instruments of the effort to prevent terrorism.  The region is ripe for a convergence of civilizations and an identity that transcends national, religious, and ethnic divisions.  Now is the time for the West to recognize and work with all groups in Arab civil society towards a genuinely stable future.

[1] The New Yorker Magazine reported  in March 2011 that the hundred and twenty-five million dollars’ worth of algorithmic computer modeling that American military and intelligence agencies had ordered over the previous three years to forecast global political unrest completely failed to predict the waves of North Africa and Middle East protests of 2011.

[2] In fact, protest groups do not want to be tared with the Western brush.  thedailynewsegypt.com, for example, quoted  Mahmoud Afify, a coordinator of April 6 movement in Egypt as saying: "We won't accept being a tool by the United States for it to appear as a pro-democracy country while in fact they backed the ousted regime at the beginning of the revolution"  It further quoted the co-founder of Egypt's April 6 movement, Ahmed Maher,  as saying that the group "runs on membership fees and donations from its members. The headquarters are made available to us by ordinary Egyptians; however, we welcome ideological and moral cooperation [from the West.]"


[3] Timur Kuran, "The Weak Foundation of Arab Democracy," The New York Times, May 28, 2011.