The Arab Spring and US Disassociation
The Arab Spring touched off internal instability following the popular revolts and fall of several strongmen in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Only on the island country of Bahrain did the Sunni monarchy prevail against the Shiite majority who staged large protests in Manama’s Pearl
Square. Out of fear that the government’s severe crackdown on Shiite crowds might be exploited by radical groups with ties to Iran, the Obama administration leaned on Bahrain to exercise restraint. Bahrain’s Sunni- led government pulled back its security forces and started a dialogue with the main Shiite opposition movement that brought calm to the streets.7 In other countries, the demonstrators ousted the military-backed tyrants. The upheavals played out nearly simultaneously within nations, between states, and among religious and ethnic communities. The Arab Spring ended up re-entrenching autocratic rule and socioeconomic stratification amid ruined economies.
The origins of these revolts will likely be debated for years. Joining that debate now was Kanan Makiya, the renowned Iraqi author of Republic of Fear, who argued the Arab Spring had an American provenance with the US ouster of Saddam Hussein. Makiya noted that George W. Bush’s democracy agenda for a post-Hussein Iraq was “why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in [the] 2003” invasion. They feared the fall of the first domino. Once US-led forces chased Hussein from power, Washington set about establishing election procedures, political parties, and parliamentary rules for democratic governance. Makiya blamed the Iraqi elites for fighting each other rather than grasping the opportunity for progress.8 Two well-regarded military historians also make the case in Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World that the removal of Saddam Hussein served “as a catalyst” for the Arab Spring.9 Whatever the precise spark, the uprisings developed from deep frustrations over arbitrary rule and economic hardships.10
Egypt quickly followed Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s birthplace. As the Middle East’s most consequential Arab power, Egypt ranked at the top of America’s regionwide alliance structure. Hosni Mubarak’s expulsion from the presidency caught Washington off guard. Mubarak, a former army general, ascended to the presidency in 1981 after Anwar al Sadat’s assassination. He kept Egypt in the historic Camp David agreements with Israel, which his predecessor signed. His security forces relentlessly pursued the terroristic Islamic Group and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, while he kept the Muslim Brotherhood on a tight leash. Yet, nearly 20 percent unemployment, skewed income inequality toward the wealthy, 45 percent illiteracy, nearly non-existent health care for the masses, and endemic corruption—all made Egypt ripe for unrest. Once lit, the rebellion was fueled by the Internet and social media, which served to connect and excite demonstrators in Cairo and other cities.
Washington underestimated the force of the political conflagration consuming Egypt. Determined anti-government protestors in Tahrir Square upended early assessments. When the handwriting on the wall could no longer be ignored, the Obama administration decided on public and private initiatives to nudge Mubarak from office to secure a transition and free elections.11 Next, Washington publically approved of the Muslim Brotherhood as the new Egyptian government after its election victory, despite its disavowal of the 1978 Camp David Accords that led to peace between Egypt and Israel. The White House’s acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood—a political movement advocating adherence to strict Islamic laws—departed from previous US policy. This about-face was noted by America’s dynastic allies in the Arabian Peninsula, who were wary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-monarchical declarations.12 The Obama administration soon backtracked when a military coup displaced the Muslim Brotherhood.