Arab Spring: Keeping the Rabble in Line

by Nick Smith

For decades, the U.S. has provided much support to the Middle East’s dictator’s–both material  and non-material. This legacy has been challenged recently by the Arab Spring. President Obama’s July 2009 speech at Cairo University recognized the “tension between the United States and Muslims around the world.”

The administration announced Obama’s purpose in Cairo was to “reset” U.S. foreign policy in  the Middle East. It should be expected for leaders to speak of their unwavering “principles of justice and progress,” as Obama did in Cairo.

However, anyone that remotely pays any attention to politics understands there is a difference between rhetoric and action. The U.S. response to the populist movements in Egypt and Bahrain are instructive in this respect: a contempt for any meaningful democratic development.

Not long after Obama’s speech in Cairo, the weapons continued to flow into the region. Before summer was over, Obama signaled to Congress for a sale to take place of much needed equipment, including Chinook transport helicopters that are valued at approximately $308 million. Pentagon documents revealed another sale to Egypt at the end of the year worth $3.2  billion for Cold War-era jets complete with spare parts.

By January 2011–the peak of the Egyptian revolution– it was well understood by government officials in Washington that Hosni Mubarak, a key ally and business partner, would be ousted soon. The U.S. continued to provide much needed equipment to a desperate Mubarak government, as well as ideological support. As Al-Jazeera reported, it was not uncommon for protesters in both Egypt and Bahrain to pick up gas canisters with a “Made in the USA” label on the bottom.

At the end of January 2011, diplomat-turned-lobbyist Frank Wisner travelled to Cairo. Wisner’s purpose in Cairo was to ensure Mubarak and his associates received logistical and ideological support for their regime. It was initially reported that Wisner was to “prod” Mubarak into resigning. But a week after his visit, as reported by Foreign Policy, Wisner remarked at the Munich Security Conference, “I believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical” because it would “maintain stability and responsible government.”

This signaled the Obama administration’s cynical attitude toward the plight of the Egyptian people. A restless population would not get in the way of business. U.S. support for Mubarak  would continue right up to the end until it became virtually impossible to support him, or at least politically distasteful. The story is similar in Bahrain.

Protests erupted in Bahrain not long after those in Egypt sometime in early 2011. Bahrainis  of all walks of life gathered in Manama’s Pearl Square on Valentine’s Day. The reasons for the protests are familiar: an autocratic government, high unemployment (especially among youth), callous discrimination against a Shia minority, and widespread corruption. The US response to Bahrain is familiar as well – the ancient pillars had to be kept in place.

There are two reasons why Bahrain is important for U.S. interests: it allows the U.S. Fifth Fleet – a large component of the Navy – to port at a strategic location in the Persian Gulf; the nation is also a reliable client for the purchase of arms.

Around the same time Obama gave his speech in Cairo and sold millions in arms to Mubarak’s forces, so too was Bahrain strengthening its might. King Hamad’s military and police forces received $131 million in equipment from the United States.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime met its demise on February 11 2011. Fortunately for Hamad, he learned his lesson early on for what could happen if you let the “rabble” get out of line.

Protests exponentially intensified by March. On March 7th, a crowd congregated outside the American embassy demanding they end support to the Arab dictatorships. An embassy official emerged several hours later with not an olive branch, but a box of doughnuts, as reported by The Guardian.

The Bahraini government’s reaction was not quite as charming. Its forces alone could not handle the uprising sufficiently enough. Bahrain’s allies (and, coincidentally, friends of the U.S. too) needed to be called upon for support. Thus, by mid-March, 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops and  500 police officers from the United Arab Emirates were deployed to quell what could have been the Bahraini Revolution.

As mentioned, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are crucial allies in the region. Both provide a consistent source for oil, and like Bahrain, are clients for U.S. arms. Witness Saudi  Arabia’s purchase of an astounding $60 billion of military equipment in September 2010–the largest in U.S. history.

When Bahrain– along with some help from a few friends– was able to smash any and all dissent, there were the expected speeches of empathy from U.S. leaders. Obama was “deeply concerned” with the force used against protesters; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged  “restraint”–not to immediately stop–the violence applied to Bahraini citizens.

Perhaps most egregious is the U.S.’ tacit acceptance for Bahrain’s crackdown. The Fifth Fleet, which provides an elite security buffer in the region, stayed put. No sanctions or military actions were undertaken as they had been in Libya and Syria. There was no condemnation of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ employment as henchmen. The United States did not  make any effort to mitigate the repression felt in Bahrain. Also significantly, there was not a  peep about such hypocrisy from our “liberal media.” Plus ça change.

The United States is notorious in its support for the most legendary ruthless thugs. From the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, to Suharto’s Indonesia, and other members of the rogues gallery; Egypt and Bahrain, unfortunately, are part of this special club.

Although these events happened in the not-so-distant past, they still remain relevant. Egyptian protesters continue to gather in Tahrir Square, still demanding the rights and democracy that have been repressed for so long. King Hamad still has not gone the way of Mubarak. The war on human rights and democracy in Bahrain is remains with us. Still, the U.S. refuses to make any meaningful gesture that would even slightly match its sanguine rhetoric of justice and self-determination.

When concluding his speech at Cairo University, Obama said, “There is also one rule that lies at  the heart of every religion–that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples–a belief that isn’t new.” While the principle of universality may, in words, appear ubiquitous to the U.S., its actions speak of a different morality.


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