Saturday, November 24, 2012




“So we face a historic opportunity. We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”
— President Barack Obama
May 19, 2011 Washington, DC[1]

Unexpectedly and after decades of being silenced and politically enslaved, revolutions broke out in more than one Arab country. These popular revolutions –the ‘Arab Spring’- brought down long lasting corrupted political systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, shook the thrones of other systems in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and Syria, and created a new political and social reality in a fast pace of formation and depth of transformations that were unimagined and unprepared for by most international powers especially the United States –the leader of the modern world-. The rhythm of the Arab Spring seems to be out of control as it spread from one country to the other, overcoming the existing political elite formations whether pro or anti United States.


Many U.S politicians, journalists, analysts, and allies around the world felt that the U.S administration’s response to the revolutions and mass protests in the Arab region was rather ‘slow’. The Washington Post editorial[2] on April 30th, 2011 observed that when the protests erupted in Egypt, the first reaction of the U.S administration considered the regime in Egypt ‘stable’, and that President Obama was the last Western leader to condemn Colonel Gaddafi’s use of military force against his citizens. Also, the newspaper criticized the United States government for wasting weeks before moving militarily in support of its allies to prevent the targeting of civilians in Libya. The newspaper believed that Syria was another example of the U.S. ‘negative reaction’ in dealing with arising events in the region. Days after the outbreak of the first violent clashes between the Syrian security forces and the demonstrators, Secretary Hillary Clinton described President Bashar al-Assad as a ‘reformist’. The U.S administration took late measures to support the demonstrators who were calling down the regime through the referral of Syria to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations and the attempt to impose sanctions on Syrian officials. The Washington Post attributed the slow nature of the United States response to the political beliefs of President Obama himself as he refuses to make radical changes in U.S. foreign policy and the differences in the views of his advisers. The newspaper also attributed the slowness to infrequent conflicting internal U.S. interests, noting that those conflicting interests are understandable knowing that it is not easy to sacrifice the United States alliance with Arab regimes, which are falling apart, or risk changing the political system, such as the Syrian regime, despite his hostility to the United States, with the absence of a clear vision of the form and orientations of its successor. The newspaper pointed out that in spite of this negative or slow response, some of the U.S President advisors said that Washington is not negative but instead it attempts to deal with the situation from behind the scene.
But the newspaper said the slow pace of the U.S. reaction in this context is not a virtue knowing that due to this strategy the confidence in U.S. policy and President Obama fell significantly in Egypt.


The Washington Post came to a conclusion that the U.S negative reaction and slow policy in the region left countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey interfere excessively in the occurring events and criticize the use of military force against civilians, which was considered by the newspaper abandonment of the United States world role in supporting human rights and democracy. At the end, the Washington Post believed that by adopting the ‘control from behind the scene’ policy the United States looked like it voluntarily gave up its global leadership in the Middle East[3].


In this context, the United States should rethink its policies toward the changes that have occurred in the Arab arena. There is no room for using negative-response policy or as we might call it ‘reactive’ policy, especially with the rising threats in the region such as the spread of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in the volatile areas as well as Iran’s nuclear proliferation and the Shiite Arc (Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon) Tehran intends to complete with the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of the year. The Shiite Arc threatens the United States allies in the Gulf, endangers the continued flow of energy to world markets, and the fight against terrorism in the region. In Bahrain for example, the ambitions of Iran circulate around exporting the "Khomeini’s revolution" and swallowing the Gulf country by fueling fanaticism and prejudices between Sunni and Shiite in order to build the Iranian-style "Republic of velayat-e faqih" with the support of the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon. In Yemen, the leaders of the "GCC"[4] quickly agreed on supporting Saudi Arabia in its efforts to end the crisis. Iran sought to destabilize Yemen by supporting the ‘Houthis’ and ‘al-Qaeda’ terrorists. The GCC aimed to protect Yemen against Iran’s ambitions of regional expansion because the possibility of Iranian influence building in Yemen is very dangerous knowing that whoever controls the shipping lanes in the Strait of "Bab el Mandeb" can control more than forty percent of the oil transferred to industrialized countries.


Therefore, Washington needs a proactive regional policy that can be interactive by allowing the management of urgent developments while increasing the United States’ ability to shape events and link between a particular situation and its outcomes and effects even in other places in the Arab region. The United States needs a policy that will allow it to take the lead again in the Middle East and protect its strategic interests and reputation as the modern world hegemon.


The Meaning of Being Proactive

A proactive U.S policy towards the Arab Spring means the anticipation and preparation for a revolution or popular protests that might lead to regime change before it happens. It might also mean causing the change to happen if by causing it many benefits are gained such as protecting U.S strategic interests in the region, promoting democracy, or saving American’s as well as Arab’s lives. In this sense, a proactive policy involves responding to new developments in each Arab state before they escalate and become out of control. It also involves anticipating any potential future opportunity to participate in and perhaps shape the unstoppable changes that are taking place in the region as well as anticipating any potential threat coming out of these changes in order to avoid it through actively attempting to make alterations to any possibly threatening environments, groups, or practices.

Proactive planning will help the United States stay ahead in the competition over influence in the Arab world. Thus, this policy requires good planning and hard work. By understanding the meaning of this policy we can define the elements of proactive planning which are:



First: Collecting data about the Arab region


The United States cannot effectively engage in the region without having a blueprint of circumstances and conditions that led to the Arab spring. In fact, it is important to understand the environment that harbored the seeds of the revolutions and the causes that led to their outbreak. Knowing this will help in comparing between different Arab states in order to find out which country is experiencing changes that might lead to the outbreak of protests. It will also help in assessing the magnitude of the protests and predict the possibility of them turning into a revolution that will bring down the existing political regime.  

a)      Understanding the Region’s Critical Situation at the Beginning of 2011

To formulate a pragmatic proactive policy towards the Arab Spring, we need to understand the political scene in that region just before those revolutions erupted. There are four basic observations that can be noticed at the dawn of 2011:

1-       The Arab world is fragmented, suffering from critical political, cultural, economic, sectarian, ethnic, and military contradictions that are competing fiercely with each other creating volatile environments in almost all Arab states. This reality made the region vulnerable to external interference at all levels (official, popular, economic, and political).

2-      The separation between Arab regimes and Arab nations. Political leaders ceased to represent the nations’ aspirations and fulfill their needs; they only represented the population enslavement and disappointments especially in the Arab-Israeli conflict which is a matter of honor to most Arabs. 

3-      The growing sensitivity of Arab nations to external intervention in their conflicts or regular internal issues. Over the past ten years, Arab nations became very frustrated of the rising Turkish and Iranian roles in the region. Arabs are quite aware of both countries’ expansion ambitions and their continuous interference to confiscate the Arab role in many issues related to the region. Arabs are also frustrated of the United States and its allies’ interventions –especially in Iraq and Lebanon- which they considered suspicious.

4-      The spread of the convection that the military weakness of the Arab countries reduces their response to any crisis situation to a mere settlement even if it was against the interest of their own nations.

All of these observations make us reach convection that at the dawn of 2011 the Arab world was going through political twisters that produced minor violent clashes from time to time. Clashes differed from one place to the other depending on the intensity of the population agitation. Those twisters developed to hurricanes that ousted the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan regimes and are threatening to do the same in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. The four observations still stand today in the countries that did not witness a revolution yet. In Saudi Arabia, the Shiite minority is arranging protests from time to time (i.e. the Shiite protest in al-Qteef at the end of November). Saudi women are also calling for protests to gain their full rights and freedom (i.e. the women protest for their right to drive a car, which the United States considered a Saudi internal issue that the administration will not interfere in). Jordan and Morocco witnessed several protests over the past few months calling for radical reforms. Here, the question become: why did popular demands or protests turn in to sweeping revolution in some countries but not the others?    

b)      Identifying the Causes of the Arab Spring.

The real agent behind the raging revolutions in more than one Arab country is that Arab societies have become more sophisticated than their political systems that fall short of their people demands, and even turned into a hindrance to the development of the Arab social, political and economic structures.
Economic obstacles and political marginalization of the majority of the population, especially the youth, created a fertile environment for protests. In the absence of effective institutions and political channels that enable people to put forward their demands, protesters turned to the streets as a means to express their demands. Thus, the reasons that led to the outbreak of revolutions are:

1- Political causes:
political regimes in the region outlasted their expiration date. They are characterized of being repressive, inflexible, and corrupted. Political analysts consider the deterioration of these worn systems the most important reason that led to the recent protests, which began in Tunisia and expanded to other Arab states. Those regimes politically marginalized their nations to the extent that citizens were unable to claim their economic needs and political rights. Arab countries were always under the control of one dominant party that seized state’s power and controlled its institution which led to the low internal and external efficiency. Another political cause is the inheritance tendency in most Arab regimes even in the Republican states. In Egypt, Mubarak’s persisting attempts to pass the presidency to his son Jamal was one among many other important reasons for Egyptians to overthrow his regime. Also in Libya, Moa’mar al-Qaddafi intended to pass the throne to his son Saif al-Islam.  Another reason behind the Arab Spring is the absence of fundamental rights and freedoms. In Egypt, the leader of the opposition party ‘Kefaya’ (which means enough) Ayman Noor was arrested and imprisoned many times because of his opposition to Mubarak’s regime even though he was a member of the parliament and had immunity. Hundreds of the Egyptian “Brotherhood” members were always imprisoned before parliamentary elections in order to prevent the Brotherhood from gaining the majority of the seats.   


2- Economic causes: most of the Arab governments followed an economic program based on the characteristics of the IMF economic reform and structural adjustment program. But the direct or indirect privatization produced a stratum of new entrepreneurs that monopolized the profits of the economic growth. This reality led to the erosion of the middle class in most Arab countries and to the emergence of a stratum of young men and women who hold a higher education but do not live in the appropriate social conditions. The rising segment of highly educated young people faced problems of dwindling job opportunities and increasing living cost while the entrepreneur class held most of the state’s wealth. The factor of unemployment among youth is a critical reason, which fueled protests throughout the Arab world. In Tunisia, for example, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself due to the frustration he felt from removing his small business stand and destroying his only livelihood by the police. What this young man did became a symbol of the unemployed Arab youth revolution.


3- Arab nations developed a growing sense of lagging behind the rest of the globalized world in all aspects especially technology and information. They also became very aware of the decline of their nations' role regionally and internationally in various aspects and areas. In fact, they reached a situation where they felt they did not control their lives, environment, and even their region. 

4- The visual and audio-visual media and social interaction websites on the internet played a key role in highlighting the harsh reality experienced by the region’s nations. They reflected and communicated people frustration and helped organize their popular movements during revolutions. Al-Jazeera news network played a crucial role in fueling Arabs emotions with the footages it broadcasted directly from Tunisia and the Egyptian ‘Liberty Square’ as violent confrontations brook out between the protestors the internal security forces. In Egypt, protesters used Facebook pages (i.e. ‘Kalona Khalid Saied’ which means ‘we are all Khalid Saied’ who was an innocent young man killed due to torture by Egyptian undercover police detectives) and Facebook messages to call on their friends to catch up with them and gather in ‘Liberty Square’ every Friday after prayer which resulted in naming the Egyptian revolution the ‘Facebook revolution’.

The Arab world is undergoing a very important and serious historic transition. It is witnessing a fierce struggle between contradictory forces: the forces of change against the dominant conservative powers, the forces of the lower classes against exploitation, and the forces of freedom against the powers of suppression. This confrontation reflects a transition from the stage of the enslaving dark ages to the 21st century, to the era of democracy and the devolution of power..


Second:  Analyzing the Situation in each Arab Country and Anticipating the Future of its Political regime 


A proactive policy demands thinking about what to do before any protest or revolution takes place. To do that, the United States must deal individually with Arab states. It is true that Arab countries share similarities in the nature of their political regimes and economic deterioration, but they differ in terms of the composition of social structure. Therefore, what was applicable in Egypt and Tunisia may not be applicable in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Saudi Arabia, for example, does not meet the conditions of change. Economic and social conditions within the Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia specifically, are of a special nature that is quite different from their counterparts in other Arab countries. The tribal composition of society in that region provides the monarchy with loyalty that makes it immune against power struggle and rivalry and thus blocks the way before any collisions and conflicts of political power take place. Moreover, the excellent economic prosperity of the Gulf States puts it in a much better stable position than that in other Arab countries. In other word, the Gulf countries enjoy a state of political and economic stability.



Third: Set Clear Goals.


It is known that the foreign policy goals of any super power are an expression of its strategic interests, which is reflected in its response to - or exploitation of - various conditions, or circumstances that may affect in one way or another, negatively or positively, these interests. Although we cannot talk about any noticeable change in the U.S foreign policy toward the Arab world knowing that protecting the U.S strategic interests will remain the dominant factor that shapes the behavior of the U.S. foreign policy, the objectives of the United States in the Arab region and in the shadow of the Arab Spring require some reconsideration to reflect the new realities. Some of these objectives might be:


1-      Stabilizing the Arab region and preventing terrorist organizations (specifically al-Qaeda) from using the precarious security situation to build safety havens and use it to launch violent attacks against U.S civilians and interests in the region. Al-Qaeda took advantage of the Libyan revolution and the civil war that ravished the country to sneak in and steel weapons left by the rebels or by the NATO.    

2-      Maintaining the flow of energy from the Gulf region.

3-      Containing the Iranian threat. This implies working with the Gulf States on facing the Iranian interference in the internal affairs of these countries. Now that the U.S troops are withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2011, the regional balance of power is shifting away from the United States towards Iran and its allies. Tehran continues to deepen its alliances with Syria and expand its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Public opinion polls in the Arab world indicate that most Arabs consider the key leaders at the center of resistance in the Middle East are the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, and the Turkish Prime Minister Recipe Tayyip Erdogan, while leaders of the Gulf States, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority (who are supported by the United States) are considered poppets in the hand of the United States. In the shadow of the Arab Spring, new opportunities are showing for Tehran to shift the regional balance in its favor in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen and perhaps in other places.

4-      Gaining lead among all international actors interfering in the region by actively supporting the wave of freedom and democratic awakening of the Arab people since they are the most prominent values ​​upheld by the United States. In this sense, the United States should abandon its policy of supporting authoritarian Arab regimes in order to ensure stability and promote U.S interests in the region.

5-      Encouraging the United States allies to adopt democratic reforem especially Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain who have helped in the fight against terrorism and extremism, and has maintained the U.S. economic interests in the region.

6-      Commitment to the peace process and to the security of the state of Israel.

7-      The United States should balance between change and stability in the Arab region.

Strong goal alignment and goal visibility in the Arab region allows the various departments of the United States government to focus on achieving those goals and to quickly execute the U.S strategy by allocating proper resources across various states and situations.

Forth: Create Methods to Reach Specified Goals.

It is very important for the United States to intensify all efforts with the escalating waves of democracy in the Arab Spring to support those countries in turning to democratic states quickly to ensure international peace and security. But the problem with democratic transformation processes in some of the Arab Spring countries is that it is exacerbating internal divisions to the extent that it is reaching the level of violence, rejection, and ethnic cleansing instead of spreading the notions of coexistence, tolerance, and ballot boxes. For the United States to be involved directly in the process of nation-building whether after or before a revolution in the Arab region at this time will only increase hostilities to the United States because Arabs will only see it as foreign occupation to build democracy through mechanisms and institutions forced on them to ensure the creation of a pro-U.S. government that is responsible primarily of maintaining the U.S security and interests in the region. This belief is the outcome of the U.S occupation of Iraq and its war in Afghanistan as well as the previous U.S. support to illegal non-elected dictatorships in the region.  However, there are much easier ways for the Obama administration to engage in the Arab Spring to support political reforms in the Middle East either in the rising democracies in the states that already went through change or in the existing regimes. Two methods are suggested to apply a proactive U.S policy towards the Arab Spring:


·         The whole-of-government approach

·         The whole-of-alliance approach


The implementation of both methods to address the persisting issue in the Middle East means the collaboration between U.S. agencies (responsible for security, diplomatic, political and economic affairs as well as for development and humanitarian aid) and regional allies (whether states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey or regional organizations such as the GCC and the Arab League). This way, the United States can come back to urge Arab governments to change and launch new initiatives related to human (specifically women’s) rights or education; and even become engaged in a dialogue with the Islamic parties all through its allies in the region and without provoking the already agitated Arab nations. When we put the current situation in the Arab world as well as the eroded credibility of the United States in the region in mind, we can conclude that without using both methods, proactive action will be hard to take and less likely to succeed.



a)      Whole-of-government approach


Although the United States have applied this method in Iraq and Afghanistan, its attempts to apply it alone to the Arab Spring revolutions and post-revolutions highlighted some flaws. 


·         Failing to predict threats or potential opportunities in Arab states before things turned into crisis, protests, or revolutions. This failure was obvious in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt (the U.S important ally). The United States waited until the protests intensifies and the situation became too big and too complicated and then reacted which led the protesters in both countries to believe that the United States does not stand for what it believes and its international crusade to promote democracy is empty of content. The United States hesitated to take a side which indicates that there was not enough data on the situation and clearly there weren’t any planned strategy to face it.

·         The absence of a consistent blueprint of the current political (including political groups, parties, pressure groups, common ideologies), economic (poverty, unemployment, and corruption), social (including religious groups and orientations), and historic (including traditions and customs that influence people views of themselves and the others) situations in the Arab states, as well as the absence of a framework that clarifies the U.S goals and objectives -in the light of the current events- and that allocates the necessary resources to achieve those goals.

·         The United States is viewing the Arab Spring primarily through a security lens rather than a humanitarian one which make its policies military-centric concentrating heavily on security implications of the change that’s taking place rather than addressing the pressing humanitarian needs of local populations in pre or post-revolution states.

·         A critical structural and institutional problem lies in the absence of a lead agency responsible for planning, coordinating, and implementing an integrated proactive policy in the Arab region. As well as problems in funding, manpower, and resources that is mostly allocated to support the military-centric reactions towards the Middle Eastern situation. 


The way to face those problems in dealing with Arab revolutions can be through maximizing the capabilities of the existing agencies that are dealing with the region by establishing a crisis management team either for each Arab country or for each geographic group (i.e. GCC). This team should include personnel with broad experience about the states they are responsible of, as they can determine how various internal events and changes might develop, the direction of this development, and its potential effect on the state’s order and stability. Another solution might be cooperating with regional allies in promoting democratic reforms and sustainable economic development and directing the U.S aid to target Arab communities rather than the authoritarian regimes. 



b)      Whole-of-alliance approach.


Indeed, a whole-of-alliance approach could fill the gaps left by the whole of government approach by encouraging multilateral cooperation between the United States and regional powers such as the GCC countries and Turkey in the fields of good-governance training, police training, and rule of law development as well as political, diplomatic, development, military, and non-governmental assistance.

In other words, United States’ regional allies will play a critical role in stabilizing the Arab region by:


·         Identifying unstable states (i.e. rise of popular unrest, calls for protests, increasing violence, threatening external interference to destabilize the country). When the Shiite tried to start a revolution in Bahrain, the other GCC countries (especially Saudi Arabia) worked to contain the situation by encouraging Bahrain King to make some reforms. However, the situation escalated and turned to violence due to Tehran’s interference and provocations which led at the end to the intervention of the Saudi  security forces ‘Dera al-jazeera’ in order to prevent the overthrow of the monarchy. The situation there is still not stable and demands more radical solutions.  

·         Addressing the causes of instability. In order to protect or restore order in unstable states, regional powers can sponsor national dialogue among conflicting parties and facilitate negotiations to reach compromises and settlements that might prevent the situation from deteriorating. Turkey tried to play a role in convergence of views between the Syrian opposition (that held many conventions in Turkey) and the Syrian government. Another way to address a boiling situation is by applying pressure on the government to respond to peoples demands. The Arab League took severe actions against the Syrian government to stop violence against civilians. The organization suspended Syria’s membership and imposed economic sanctions on it.

·         Coordinating humanitarian assistance and developmental and financial aid. To stabilize the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, the GCC countries approved the membership of both states in the council although they are not oil producing countries or located on the Persian Gulf. Yet, Jordan and Morocco will benefit from the GCC economic aid that might enhance the living standers in them and prevent popular turbulence. 


The purpose of the whole-of-allies approach is that it will help the United States in providing developmental and humanitarian aid and security support to the Arab region without being involved directly (unless the situations calls for direct intervention). In other words, in order for the U.S. proactive policy to succeed, the Arab population must accept the party that is executing it. Knowing the spread of anti-American sentiments among Arab nations, and to gain the trust of local communities, it is best if an Arab or Muslim state or organization that enjoys good reputation among Arab nations (such as Turkey and Qatar) lead the attempts to stabilize the region.   






            The outbreak of uprisings in the Arab Spring marked the end of tyranny and despotism in the region. Arab nations revolted against oppression and slavery and marched steadily towards freedom. Many countries of the civilized world are reconsidering their positions towards the Arab world, and in the forefront is the United States. The U.S. policies towards changes that occurred in the region must not continue to be reactive; trying only to keep up with hasty developments. A reactive policy will affect the ability of the United States to influence the outcomes of the Arab Spring in order to stabilize the region, protect innocent lives, establish democracy and development, and protect the U.S strategic interests and allies. Whereas having a proactive strategy set and ready to accommodate any rising event or change will provide the United States with great control on the course of events and will enhance its role as the world leader and the primary source of international peace and democracy.

The U.S proactive policy towards the Arab spring should have specific and clear goals in order to successfully allocate the available resources towards achieving those goals. Using the whole-of-government approach supported by a whole-of-alliance approach will help preparing for arising changes ahead of time and containing the outcomes of the previous ones without involving the United States in unnecessary pitfalls or adding to the resentment felt among Arabs towards the U.S.   


[1]The Embassy of the United States, Brussels, Belgium, “Middle East - United States Policy Toward the Middle East: a Dossier”, <>
[2] The Washington Post, Editorial Board Opinion, “Strategy of Slowness”, April 30, 2011. <>
[3] The Washington Post, Editorial Board Opinion, “Strategy of Slowness”, April 30, 2011. <>
[4] GCC = the Gulf Cooperation Council.

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