Posted by on August 01, 2012 in Blog

By Nama Khalil

2012 Summer Intern

In a recent interview with Israel Hayom, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed that the Arab Spring might never have happened had George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" not been prematurely halted by President Barack Obama:

"President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner."

He further points out how disappointed he is “in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We're very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world.”

It is difficult to take Romney’s claims seriously when they present a clear contradiction of values. Former President George W. Bush’s freedom agenda certainly preached democracy for all, but its actual implementation was anything but. In his second inaugural address, Bush made a heartfelt stand for democratic expression around the world, pledging that "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors." However, the "freedom agenda" wasn't that at all. One example is the case of 2006 Palestinian elections, where the Bush Administration pushed hard for democratization in Palestine only to promptly withdraw its support the instant Hamas won. The "freedom agenda" was in fact a title given to justify U.S interference in countries that had governments hostile to U.S. interests—like in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also helped suppress reform movements in countries that had governments friendly to U.S. interests, as clearly seen in U.S allies Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Little was done there to hold their governments accountable. 

Contrary to Romney’s claims, President Obama largely continued Bush’s foreign policies in the region, albeit under a different name. President Obama increased the number of troops in Afghanistan significantly, and his reliance on the preemptive use of force is evident in the drone strikes against terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen. The irony in this situation is that the United States’ foreign policy agenda contributed to the uprisings rather than suppressing them; Arab autocrats did not embrace democratic reform, at least partly because such reforms were not in the “strategic interests” of the United States. A recent example is U.S financial and military aid to help NATO oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, while simultaneously no attention was given to the human rights violations carried out in 2011 by the Bahraini government against the peaceful protesters. Despite having been deeply involved in the region for decades, the United States has never had an Arab policy; as a people, Arabs have been completely absent from U.S. agendas; policymakers have preferred to deal with their unrepresentative governments instead.

The Arab revolutions were a historical protest movement that toppled tyrannical autocrats. It was a people’s movement that gathered to demand socioeconomic change, fight injustice and call for democratic reform. It was a culmination of a social and national consciousness that rejected the repressive Arab state order and in favor of democratic change.

Romney’s concern with the newly, democratically elected Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt is not concern for the people as much as it is a concern for Western interests in the region. Romney’s vision “for the nations to move towards a new modern world view,” is truly unfounded. Why assume that Arab nations are not already moving forward? Romney is discrediting an entire populist movement that collectively broke from a despotic past—a tremendous example of moving forward. We should also take a moment to acknowledge that for the first time in decades, the election results are a reflection of those who chose to vote. Many chose to boycott the elections, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, but people did vote and the majority vote is currently being represented—a process we, in America, seem to only champion in this country but easily dismiss in other countries when we do not like the results.   

Lastly, Romney is using language that equates the West with modernity and Islam as an adverse to modernity, which creates a polarized “us vs. them” narrative that dismisses the fluid exchange between the United States and Muslim civil societies. Contrary to general belief, Islamism is not a monolithic political dogma; it is a hybrid concept that will further develop with time and in the context of sociopolitical change. Islamist movements have gone through a long and deep transformation over the last several decades. The evolution of Islamist movements in Arab world has been influenced mainly by nationalist agendas. When powerful dictators restrained secular nationalism in the last decades, many found refuge in their mosques. For years, countless debates over the role of Islam in politics, state and societies have ensued and will continue to take place in the Muslim world even without an ‘Islamist’ leader.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring is concerning, not because of Islamist governments, but because the region is going through political, social, and demographic changes that will inevitably affect public life. The Arab world is currently being re-imagined and rebuilt—Arab Muslims, Christians, leftists, feminists, conservatives, and whoever is in between, should be given the time and space to figure it out.



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