America's do-over in the Middle East

America's do-over in the Middle East
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Opportunities for genuine transformation arise rarely in world affairs. Once lost, they rarely return, at least not anytime soon. For example, after the Soviet Union crushed Czechoslovakia’s “Prague Spring” in 1968, Eastern Europe had to wait a generation for the fall of communism. 

The Arab Spring reform movements in 2010-11 provided a similarly rare opportunity to transform the governance of one of the world’s most repressive and volatile regions. The U.S. vacillated, and that opportunity was lost. 

Recent events, particularly in Algeria and Sudan, offer a remarkable second chance to bring democracy to the Middle East. We would be foolish to let it slip away.

For decades, many assumed repressive dictatorships were inevitable in the Middle East, just as “informed opinion” in the 1960s and 1970s held that military dictatorships were inevitable in South America. Courageous pro-democracy activists transformed that continent. The Arab Spring similarly demonstrated that the desire for freedom and democracy knows no borders. 

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Our response was slow, timid and often backwards. Vice President Biden demoralized pro-democracy demonstrators, insisting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator as his security forces were brutally trying to crush them. In country after country, the West encouraged activists that most shared its values to expose themselves in peaceful demonstrations — and then sat passively by as authoritarian regimes arrested, tortured, and killed them. Those dissidents who survived by staying in the shadows were less friendly to the West and less democratic in their orientation.    

Even after the Egyptian people brought down Mubarak, the U.S. refused to wield the influence its massive foreign aid payments provide to support a democratic transition. It made hardly a peep when the generals disqualified all credible secular democrats from the presidential elections, forcing voters to choose between the old regime and Islamists. And the U.S. applied no serious pressure when General al-Sisi exploited a mass uprising against the incompetence of the elected Islamist regime — one of the largest political demonstration in human history — to reimpose military rule and crush all peaceful dissent. 

The same was true throughout the region. The West sat by while the Saudis and their allies crushed idealistic Sunni-Shiite reformers in Bahrain and plunged Yemen into war. The West was similarly timid when the Syrian President annihilated his people’s democratic aspirations with chemical weapons and foreign troops. NATO briefly rescued anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya but rapidly ceded its influence to repressive Gulf states. Only in Tunisia, where France was the dominant western power, has tenuous democracy taken hold

Last month, pro-democracy activists returned to the streets and ousted the dictators of Algeria and Sudan. Abdelaziz Bouteflika ruled Algeria for 20 years. He was originally installed by an army that launched a bloody civil war to block elections it expected to lose. Omar Al-Bashir’s 30 years ruling Sudan included genocide in Darfur, which triggered international arrest warrants. Neither will be missed. 

In both countries, demonstrators remain in the streets, demanding independent civilian transitional governments and prompt, free elections. In both, the military is equivocating and appears split between those wanting to honor popular demands for freedom and those seeking to reimpose authoritarian rule under one of their own. 

The region’s authoritarian regimes want the military to retain control. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates just announced a $3 billion aid package to prop up Sudan’s generals. In that vein, Egypt pushed through an African Union resolution endorsing extended military rule in Sudan.

A firm U.S. stand in favor of civilian control and prompt elections could be crucial in tipping those countries toward genuine democracy. A stable Algerian democracy could buttress neighboring Tunisia; a democratic Sudan would help the new reformist regime in nearby Ethiopia. Will the U.S. help?

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Early signs are not encouraging. The U.S. has said little about the democratic revolutions in either country. It has, however, continued our steadfast support of some of the repressive regimes that are trying to frustrate the Algerian and Sudanese people’s quest for a different future. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE praised Egypt’s General al-Sisi as he pushed through constitutional amendments allowing him to keep power through 2030. No public dissent was allowed

The U.S.’s other favored ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, just executed dozens of leaders of its Shiite minority religious community. This follows Saudi Arabia’s pattern of using torture and executions to silence peaceful Shiite dissent. One was crucified. This sort of barbarism is no surprise from the regime that murdered and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and that reportedly is menacing other overseas dissidents.

Meanwhile, although the U.S. cannot find voice either to promote democracy or to condemn repression, President Trump did veto legislation to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi’s vicious war in Yemen and praised a warlord’s assault on Libya’s fragile government. 

When Polish democracy activists gave us a second chance in eastern Europe, the West spent heavily supporting civil society and transforming security services into forces compatible with democratic institutions. The continued, unreformed existence of the kind of repressive security organs that authoritarian states build is an on-going threat to an emerging democracy. Simply disbanding those agencies drives them underground, creating a cohesive criminal organization that preys on society and discredits the new democratic regime. 

Alas, the West made no serious efforts to support security sector reform in the Arab Spring countries. Helping the people of Algeria and Sudan with this urgent project now could partially make up for the West’s failures earlier in the decade. 

If the West again ignores this golden opportunity, it will have only itself to blame for its lack of democratic allies in the region. Indeed, the stakes are even higher than democracy: Regimes lacking popular legitimacy will not dare to make the hard choices required to bring peace.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.