How the countries of North Africa and the Middle East emerge from political transitions, and with what consequences for U.S. interests in the region, has become a weighty issue in the final stages of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Last month’s deadly terror attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya; a wave of anti-U.S. protests – some of them violent – in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and elsewhere; and a drive-by shooting last week that killed a Yemeni security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a have fueled concerns about the stability of countries that are supposedly moving towards greater democracy.
In a major speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday, Clinton suggested that these violent expressions are the actions of a waning extremist fringe.
“[I]t is important to look at the full picture – to weigh the violent acts of a small number of extremists against the aspirations and actions of the region’s people and governments,” she said.
“That broader view supports rather than discredits the promise of the Arab revolutions. It reaffirms that, instead of letting mobs and extremists speak for entire countries, we should listen to what the elected governments and free citizens are saying. They want more freedom, more justice, more opportunity – not more violence. And they want better relations not only with the United States, but with the world – not worse.”
Clinton backed up these assertions by citing actions taken by Libyan and Tunisian officials and ordinary citizens after the attack in Benghazi and the torching of an American school in Tunis, such as anti-extremist demonstrations and steps to shut down armed militias in Libya.
Those responses, she said, pointed to “the undimmed promise of the Arab spring.”
“By starting down the path of democratic politics, Libyans and Arabs across the region have firmly rejected the extremists’ argument that violence and death are the only way to reclaim dignity and achieve justice.”
Clinton said the U.S. government had been “clear-eyed” from the outset abut the threats of violent extremism.
“A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship,” she said. “As we’ve warned from the beginning, there are extremists who seek to exploit periods of instability and hijack these democratic transitions.”
But some regional experts believe it is the “democratic transitions” themselves that are the root of the problem. Islamists have been empowered in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, and emboldened in Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere. Syria’s fate remains unclear, but Islamists are prominent in the anti-Assad opposition forces, armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and supported by Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government.
In a stinging critique of Clinton’s speech, Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, called it a defense of the Obama administration’s “wrong-headed policies” in the region.
“Her argument is that the United States should ignore violence and extremism while helping to build democracies,” he wrote. “The problem is that most of the violence and extremism comes from forces that the Obama administration supports or groups basically allied with those forces.
“The violence and extremism is the inevitable outcome, not a declining byproduct, of this process.”
In Egypt, Rubin said, the government’s security forces did nothing to protect the U.S. embassy when a mob attacked it on September 11.
“Why? Because they want to stir up anti-Americanism and use it to entrench themselves in power, even as the Obama administration praises the [Muslim] Brotherhood’s regime and sends lots of money,” he said.
Pointing to Clinton’s statement in her CSIS speech that for the U.S., supporting democratic transitions “is a strategic necessity,” Rubin called the argument “absurd.
“Are ‘democratic’ regimes always better for American strategic concerns than dictatorships?” he asked. “That’s untrue in Egypt and many other countries in the last half-century. Moreover, that ignores the fact that the Obama administration has supported transitions in a way strengthening the likelihood of radical, anti-American rule.”
In her address, Clinton said, “We stand with the Egyptian people in their quest for universal freedoms and protections.” Rubin pointed out that 75 percent of Egypt’s voters in parliamentary elections, and about 53 percent in presidential elections, had supported candidates and parties who, he said, oppose those same “universal freedoms and protections.”
The Barnabas Fund, a 19 year-old international organization supporting Christians in Islamic societies, also believes the “Arab spring” transitions have boosted radicals, with stark consequences for Christians in the region.
Last month’s anti-American protests over an anti-Islam video clip “vividly demonstrated the extent to which Islamists there [in North Africa] have become emboldened since the Arab spring,” the organization said in a new analysis. “They had been kept on a tight leash by the ousted secular dictators in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt but now have much more freedom to push their agenda.”
“The success of Islamist political parties in post-Arab spring elections has given them confidence, and security lapses created by the tumult of regime change has given them opportunity,” Barnabas Fund said. “The growth of Islamism in North Africa poses a threat to the security of the entire region and specifically to the vulnerable Christian minority there.”