Home inFocus American Policy at a Crossroads (Fall 2012) Inconsistent Policies for the Arab Uprising

Inconsistent Policies for the Arab Uprising

Michael Sharnoff Fall 2012

Smoke rises over the Saif al-Dawla district in Aleppo, Syria on October 2, 2012. Aleppo is on the frontline in the 19-month conflict between the Asad regime and the opposition. The civil war has already claimed 30,000 lives, now averaging 100 to 200 deaths per day.

In June 2009, shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo to set a new course for U.S.-Muslim relations based on mutual trust and respect. Then the Arab uprising swept the world by storm, toppling decades-old dictatorships and giving rise to new governments that lack both trust and respect for the U.S.

It is no surprise that the Obama administration, similar to other Middle Eastern governments and analysts, was caught off-guard by the Arab uprising. President Obama’s failure to alter his policies to match reality, however, has led his administration down an uncertain and dangerous path not only for America’s interests, but for the interests of the democratic voices in the region.


The Arab uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010 when 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of police confiscating his fruits and vegetables for sale. Riots soon erupted across the country against President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—a Western ally and partner in the international war on terror. When Tunisians protested the regime’s autocracy and kleptocracy, President Obama responded by urging both sides to show restraint and called on the government to respect human rights.

The administration’s placid response was a result of a reasonable assumption that the protests in Tunisia would either be crushed by the Tunisian military or it would fizzle out on their own. Never before has a popular, grassroots movement toppled a government in the Maghreb.

In a matter of weeks following Bouazizi’s suicide, however, Ben Ali fled Tunisia for his life. Ennahda, the once-banned Islamist party, received a plurality of votes in the election held in March 2011. Ennahda draws inspiration from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) founded in 1928—an anti-Western, anti-Zionist organization that advocates implementing Sharia law and restoring the Muslim Caliphate. And while Ennahda has pledged to transform Tunisia into an open and democratic state and Sharia has not been adopted, some signs suggest it could ultimately occur.

Consider the following: In November 2011, Ennahda’s Secretary General Hammadi Jebali declared in the presence of a Hamas official that the time was “a divine moment in a new state, and in, hopefully, a 6th caliphate.” Another example of Ennahda reneging on its pledge to respect democracy was its decision to grant legal status to two political parties: the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front (Jabhat al-Islah) and the Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir), a global Islamist movement that seeks to restore the Caliphate. In July 2012, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Tunis. By providing Hamas with a platform to declare its intention to “liberate Palestine” on Tunisian soil, Ennahda may have been tacitly accepting Hamas’s genocidal aims.

Moreover, in August thousands of Tunisians took to the streets protesting a draft constitution that provides women with rights for being “complimentary to men” rather than equal to men. This dramatic downgrade of women’s rights is a far cry from the more open and tolerant Tunisia during the 1950s and 60s.

Washington’s ties with Tunis remain tenuous at best. For the most part, the Obama administration has insisted that Ennahda is a moderate Islamist party that will be forced to act pragmatically once in office. Instead of publicly reprimanding the new Tunisian leadership and governing party for advocating a constitution which denigrates women, embracing Hamas, and legalizing radical Islamist parties to serve in government, Washington has decided to provide $100 million unconditionally for “economic growth and job creation.”


The uprising in Tunisia spread like wildfire to Egypt, where the Obama administration found itself even more unprepared to respond. Hosni Mubarak was a strong American ally and had worked with the U.S. to maintain stability in the Middle East. But when popular uprisings against Mubarak’s rule surfaced in January 2011, the Obama administration quickly turned against him. The administration supported the Egyptian people demanding Mubarak’s ouster in the naive belief that the liberal, secular, and internet-savvy youth who led the Revolution would lead the new government. That did not happen.

During presidential elections held in June 2012, Mohammed Morsi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who maintains close ties with that organization, defeated Ahmad Shafiq, a senior official under Mubarak with close ties to the U.S. Washington was shocked, and secular Egyptians felt Obama had betrayed them.

Since entering office, Morsi has categorically failed to uphold agreements preserved under Mubarak.

For instance, Morsi and other MB leaders have routinely advocated placing the peace treaty with Israel to a referendum, knowing full well a majority of Egyptians would want to downgrade diplomatic relations with Jerusalem. In addition, dozens of Islamist radicals previously jailed by Mubarak have been released under Morsi’s watch. And Morsi has radically reneged on Mubarak’s previous policy of shunning Hamas and only dealing with the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people. Morsi has lifted the blockade on Gaza and opened the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt for regular travel. While Gazans were denied freedom of movement under Mubarak, Morsi has permitted them to enter the country via Rafah for three days without a visa.

Unlike Mubarak who did not tolerate a destabilized Sinai, Islamist militants have bombed Egypt’s pipelines to Israel (and Jordan) at least 15 times since Mubarak’s ouster. Lawlessness persists in Sinai and border clashes between Islamist terrorists, Egyptian soldiers, and Israeli soldiers are becoming more frequent.

The most severe example of Morsi’s indifference to Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. occurred on September 11, 2012. Using an obscure anti-Islam Internet film produced by an American national as a pretext, a mob in Cairo attempted to storm the American embassy and successfully burned its flag. The Egyptian leadership waited two days to issue an apology, which was perceived by most Americans as halfhearted at best.

Even worse, when American anguish was high due to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi, Libya, Morsi and the Brotherhood focused on criticizing the film for harming Muslim sensitivities and threatened to take legal action against the filmmaker. Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, Morsi called the film a work of “religious defamation” and attempted to draw a moral equivalence by adding, “physical violence is not the only form of violence.”

The Obama administration condemned the attack but also blamed the film for inciting violence. Egypt’s status has been downgraded to “neither a friend nor foe;” however many frustrated Americans are recognizing the limitations of U.S. influence in Egypt and questioning the wisdom of continuing to supply it with billions of dollars in aid.


As Mubarak was preparing to step down in February 2011, Libyans were gearing up to openly challenge the more than 40 years of corruption, human rights violations, and autocracy under Muammar Qaddafi. In a short period of time, the rebels succeeded in controlling large swaths of Libyan territory and orchestrated a NATO military intervention. The Obama administration had the opportunity to take an assertive leadership role with NATO to support the rebels and defeat Qaddafi, but instead chose to lead from behind. Obama, like other presidents, may have been correct in not openly siding with the rebels whose precise identities and beliefs remain unknown to this day. The fact that the rebels sought to depose Qaddafi, an anti-Western and anti-Israel demagogue with American blood on his hands, does not necessarily mean they are for democracy or are pro-American.

Libya’s transformation to democracy after Qaddafi has not been easy. An interim government and constitution is expected, and the de facto rulers have the daunting task of eradicating remnants of pro-Qaddafi loyalists and unifying the country. The instability Libya suffered during the war also created an opportunity for al-Qaeda and other terrorists to exploit. While many Libyans reject violence, some are sympathetic. The exact number of al-Qaeda affiliates in Libya’s new government is uncertain.

Libya’s transitional government was severely tested on September 11, 2012 when terrorists stormed the U.S. consulate and killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others. Libyan de facto President Mohammed el-Megarif apologized for the “cowardly” attacks and pledged to work with Washington to apprehend the killers.

The Obama administration’s response to the attack in Benghazi—a clear act of terrorism—has been feeble. Ambassador Susan Rice created a minor stir when she stated that the killing of the U.S. ambassador was a spontaneous act and not a terrorist attack. Her words conflicted sharply with Megarif, who said he had “no doubt” the attacks were premeditated. For his part, President Obama condemned the attack, but did not explicitly describe it as a premeditated terrorist attack by Islamist militants. Instead he spoke out against the anti-Muslim film for offending Muslims. In doing so, the president stated loud and clear that Washington under his watch will allow deadly attacks against its embassies and ambassadors to occur with little response.


Perhaps expecting the international attention and effort afforded to the uprisings that came before it, Syrians began a revolt against their regime in March 2011. Yet, Washington has treated the uprising in Syria far different from the others. As former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg ironically notes:

The fact of the matter is that we have very little leverage. But that does not mean we do not have a voice… I think that there is perhaps some reasonable fear that if the [Bashar al-] Assad regime topples there will be sectarian strife. Well, I come from the proposition that the Assad regime has more American blood on its hands than Gaddafi ever had.

Ginsberg’s comments underscore a fundamental disparity in Washington’s approach to the Arab uprising. Ben Ali and Mubarak were U.S. allies. Yet the Obama administration did not show support when popular uprisings challenged their rule. Qaddafi was neither a U.S. ally nor a direct threat, yet his brutal crackdown against the Libyan opposition prompted American intervention.

Since 1971, Syria under the Asad dynasty has been an enemy of the United States. In fact, Syrian animosity toward the U.S. dates back to the 1950s during the Cold War when Washington and Moscow vied for influence in the Middle East and Syria joined the pro-Soviet camp. In more recent years, Asad has supported the enemies of the United States and Israel: Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Moreover, by allowing jihadist and foreign fighters to cross Syria into Iraq, Asad is indirectly responsible for American military deaths there.

When Syrian protestors revolted against decades of the Asad police state, the Obama administration waited on the sidelines rather than taking a more assertive role. Obama said little about the conflict when it first erupted and his administration has since only offered vague warnings that Asad’s days are numbered.

Some pundits and analysts argue against intervening in Syria because it is better to deal with “the devil we know” than an unknown regime. This logic simply does not hold water when one considers the amount of instability the regime in Damascus has generated throughout the region.

It is understandable that the United States can ill afford a third Middle East war. However, the Obama administration could—and still should—use all of its influence to lead a military coalition to impose a no-fly zone over Syria to prevent the Syrian air force from attacking civilians. To date, the war has claimed more than 25,000 lives and has created tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Many Muslim nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Morocco, with U.S. support, could impose a no-fly zone on their own. These regimes spend a disproportionate amount of their budget on military defense and are perfectly capable of intervening if they chose to. In September, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani proposed an Arab military intervention in Syria. Perhaps he and other Gulf State leaders are waiting for Obama to give the go-ahead.

The President’s Message

President Obama has failed to take a stand against acts by the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, or even the Islamist extremists in Libya, that are undemocratic and not in the interest of Americans or civilians in their respective countries. In doing so, he has alienated the young, secular Arabs who led the revolutions and sent a clear message that Washington will tolerate threats to its security and national interests—even from countries that are beneficiaries of American aid.

Michael Sharnoff, a former assistant editor of inFOCUS, recently completed a Ph.D. in Middle East & Mediterranean Studies from King’s College, London. He writes for Levantine Routes.