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The Arab Spring: One Year Later
11:01 pm
Sun January 8, 2012

Is The Arab Spring Good Or Bad For The U.S.?

Originally published on Mon January 9, 2012 8:09 am

The Arab uprisings have ousted or weakened some American allies. Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the strength of Islamist political parties. And after the long, hard war in Iraq, the U.S. appears to have a diminished appetite for new, complicated undertakings in the region. In the last of our six-part series on the upheavals changing the Middle East, NPR's Deborah Amos looks at what it all means for America.

The Arab Spring was misnamed from the start. It was more like a political earthquake than a season of revolt — and the ground is still shaking. Of 22 Arab countries, only three autocrats have been fully ousted, and the uprisings have hardly run their course.

Ask if the changes taking place are good or bad for the U.S., and you often get a different question in return.

"Well, I think it's almost like saying, 'Is a natural disaster good or bad for America?' It just happened. I mean, there's not that much ...there's nothing that we can do about it," says Greg Gause, who specializes in Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "And so the question is not so much is it good for us or is it bad for us — the question is, 'How do we react to it?' "

The initial reaction was optimistic. President Obama said the uprising on Cairo's Tahrir Square presented a historic opportunity. But the darker days that followed in Egypt, Libya and Syria have tempered the response.

A November poll showed most U.S. voters don't see the political changes in countries like Egypt as good for America. Even fewer expect the new leaders to become allies now that some long-term American allies are gone.

"The revolution, from the beginning, has caught the U.S. off guard, and they were revolutions against U.S. strongmen," says Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

He describes this period as a historical shift comparable to the Arab revolts of the last century — the Lawrence of Arabia moment, he calls it. Then, it was a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. This time, the target is an American system of alliances that depended on cooperative dictators. This time, it's also about a younger generation that wants a voice.

"Now, all of a sudden now, we have a new player," he says. "It's not Islamists, as such. It's the people. And I think that is the biggest challenge as far as the U.S. is concerned — new players on the block that they haven't really heard or even accounted for before."

Islamists Win At The Polls

For the first time, what "the people" have to say is expressed at the ballot box.

In Tunisia, voter turnout in October was near 90 percent in some areas. But even in this most secular and Western-leaning country, Islamists emerged as the most organized political force, which raises the question: How much democracy in the Middle East is good for the United States?

"Overall, I think it's good. People really want to be free, and in the long term, democracy and a greater freedom will come about in the Middle East. In the interim, there may be some difficult days," says Thomas Henriksen, who writes about American power.

In Henriksen's office at Stanford University, a large bust of Ronald Reagan sits amoung his books. For Henriksen, freedom is the highest American value, and American interests will have to adapt.

"It was always a bit strained to deal with only a dictator," he says. "It was always too narrow a base to put our policy on."

Yet for decades, dictators delivered a relatively stable and predictable region. American foreign policy priorities like a reliable flow of oil, a relatively secure Israel, and a check on radical regimes and groups were met, more or less. We got what we needed, says Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Yes, we can all feel warm and fuzzy about democracy in the region, but we also have to recognize that it's all not going to work out very well for us," he says. "There is going to be new and different challenges ahead for the United States with a more open and democratic Middle East."

Reconsidering Egypt

The biggest challenge by far is in Egypt, where the U.S. still sends $1.3 billion in aid each year.

In parliamentary elections, Egyptians delivered a strong victory to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that pledges to build a modern democracy. But it's foreign policy outlook is less to America's liking than that of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

In a major shift, the Obama administration has opened the first high-level dialogue with Egypt's Islamists. It is a reflection of the new political realities in the region, says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar.

"I think there is a growing perception in the Arab world that the U.S. is a power in decline and that it doesn't have as much influence and leverage as it used to," he says. "And for that reason, they don't have to listen to the U.S.; they can defy the U.S."

That's because the Arab world is writing its own history again. The first chapter is about domestic politics, propelled by a popular demand for more accountable governments. Public opinion is going to count, says Greg Gause, at a time when anti-American sentiments are high.

"Now, if you ask me, is the Arab Spring good for America or bad for America, I'd have to say in the short-term, it's bad for America," Gause says.

His policy advice — and the title of his most recent piece on foreign policy — comes from Alice in Wonderland, in a saying by the White Rabbit: "Don't just do something; stand there."

"My policy advice is not to overreact, to not try to direct this in a certain way," he says. "Because I don't think we have the power, I don't think we have the local allies, and until the dust settles, and until they have stable governments that then are going to engage in their own foreign policies, perhaps the best thing we can do is let that happen."

It was the power of American technology that helped drive the revolts — Google, Facebook and Twitter — and shared American values that shaped the demands of the demonstrators. Now, the question of American interests will be determined, in part, by a new Middle East that is likely to be more democratic, more Islamist and perhaps more volatile than ever.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's return now to our series on the uprisings that are changing the political landscape of the Middle East. The first free elections in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the strength of Islamist political parties, and they've proven a rule of revolts. that those who make revolutions are rarely the ones who emerge holding political power. Among the difficult questions foreign policy experts are asking now is whether the uprisings are positive for the United States and its relationships. NPR's Deborah Amos examines that debate, starting with a reminder of the quick-moving events of the so-called Arab Spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It is the end of an era in Tunisia.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Libya's ousted leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is dead.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It was misnamed from the start. The Arab Spring was more like a political earthquake than a season of revolt and the ground is still shaking. Out of 22 Arab countries, only three autocrats have been ousted. This so-called spring has hardly run its course. Ask if the change taking place are good or bad for the U.S. and you often get a different question.

GREG GAUSE: Well, I think it's almost like saying, is a natural disaster good or bad for America? It just happened. I mean there's not that much that we can - there's nothing that we can do about it.

AMOS: That's Greg Gause at the University of Vermont. He specializes in the politics of the Middle East.

GAUSE: And so the question is not so much is it good for us or is it bad for us. I think the question is: How do we react to it?

AMOS: The initial reaction was optimistic. President Obama said the uprising in Tahrir Square presented a historic opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The square is a symbol of everything. This is our square. Tahrir means liberty. It also comes from the word (foreign language spoken), which means freedom. We just want our freedom back.

AMOS: But darker times on this same square and in Libya, Yemen and in Syria have tempered the response. A November poll showed most U.S. voters don't see the political change in countries like Egypt as good for the U.S. And even fewer expect the new leaders to become allies now that some long-term American allies are gone.

KHALED FAHMY: The revolution in general from the beginning has caught the U.S. off guard, and they were revolutions against U.S. strongmen.

AMOS: Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo, says this is a historic shift. He compares it to the Arab revolts of the last century - the Lawrence of Arabia moment, he calls it. Then it was a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. This time the target is an American system of alliances that depended on cooperative dictators. This time it's also about a younger generation that wants a voice.

FAHMY: So all of a sudden now we have a new player. It's not Islamists as such; it's the people. And I think that is the biggest challenge as far as the U.S. is concerned - a new player on the block that they haven't really heard or even accounted for before.

AMOS: For the first time, what the people have to say is expressed at the ballot box.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The voting station is right next to a mosque in a poor neighborhood of Tunis. Boys tend a flock of rambunctious sheep under a minaret as it calls out the afternoon prayer. Many of the voters here say they have cast their ballot for the Muslim party, Inadha(ph), because they say it will do the most to help the poor.

AMOS: In Tunisia, voter turnout was near 90 percent in some areas. But even in this most secular and Western-leaning country, Islamists emerged as the most organized political force. Which has raised this question: How much democracy in the Middle East is good for the United States?

THOMAS HENDRICKSON: Overall, I think it's good. People really want to be free. In the long term I think democracy and a greater freedom in the Middle East will come about. In the interim, there may be some really difficult days.

AMOS: Thomas Hendrickson writes about American power. In his office at Stanford University, a large bust of Ronald Reagan sits among his books. For Hendrickson, freedom is the highest American value. American interests will have to adapt.

HENDRICKSON: It was always a bit strained to deal with only a dictator. It was always too narrow a base to put our policy on.

AMOS: But a good deal for decades, because dictators delivered a relatively stable and predictable Middle East. American foreign policy goals on oil, Israel and Iran were met, more or less. We got what we needed, says Stephen Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations.

STEPHEN COOK: Yes, we can all feel warm and fuzzy about democracy in the region, but we also have to recognize that it's all not going to work out very well for us. There is going to be new and different challenges ahead for the United States with a more open and democratic Middle East.

AMOS: The biggest challenge by far is in Egypt, where the U.S. still sends $1.3 billion in military aid each year. In parliamentary elections, Egyptians delivered a stunning victory to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that pledges to build a modern democracy. But its foreign policy outlook is less to America's liking than that of the Mubarak's regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Excited male voters throng to the doorway of this polling station at a Qena school, eager to cast their ballots. Many, like Loofti Azid Gargez, were first-time voters.

AMOS: In a major shift, the Obama administration has opened the first high-level dialogue with Egypt's Islamists. It's a reflection of the new political realities in the region, says Shadid Hamid of the Brookings Center in Doha.

SHADID HAMID: And I think there is a growing perception in the Arab world that the U.S. is a power in decline and that it doesn't have as much influence or leverage as it used to. And for that reason, they don't have to listen to the U.S. as much. They can defy the U.S.

AMOS: That's because the Arab world is writing its own history again. The first chapter is about domestic politics, propelled by a popular demand for more accountable governments. Public opinion is going to count, says Greg Gause, at a time when anti-American sentiments are high.

GAUSE: Now, if you ask me, is the Arab Spring good for America or bad for America, I'd have to say in the short-term it's bad for America.

AMOS: His policy advice comes from "Alice in Wonderland," a saying by the White Rabbit: Don't just do something, stand there. That's the title of his most recent piece on foreign policy.

GAUSE: My policy advice is to not overreact, to not try to direct this in a certain way. Because I don't think we have the power, I don't think we have the local allies, and until the dust settles, and until they have stable governments that then are going to engage in their own foreign policies, perhaps the best thing we can do is just let that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

AMOS: It was the power of American technology - Google, Facebook and Twitter - that helped the revolt; shared American values that shaped the demands. Now, the question of American interests will be determined in part by a new Middle East - more democratic, more Islamist, more volatile than ever. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.