Friday, May 27, 2011

Obama, Hands off our Spring
The first wave of Arab revolutions is entering its second phase: dismantling the structures of political despotism, and embarking on the arduous journey towards genuine change and democratisation. The US, at first confused by the loss of key allies, is now determined to dictate the course and outcome of this ongoing revolution.

What had been a challenge to US power is now a "historic opportunity", as Barack Obama put it in his Middle East speech last week. But he does not mean an opportunity for the people who have risen up; it is a chance for Washington to fashion the region's present and future, just as it did its past. When Obama talks of his desire "to pursue the world as it should be" he does not mean according to the yearnings of its people, but according to US interests.

And how is this new world to be built? The model is that of eastern Europe and the colour revolutions; American soft power and public diplomacy is to be used to reshape the socio-political scene in the region. The aim is to transform the people's revolutions into America's revolutions by engineering a new set of docile, domesticated and US-friendly elites. This involves not only co-opting old friends from the pre-revolutionary era, but also seeking to contain the new forces produced by the revolution, long marginalised by the US.

As Obama put it last week: "We must … reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people … [and] provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned." To this end he has doubled the budget for "protecting civil society groups" from $1.5m to $3.4m.

The recipients are not only the usual neoliberal elements, but also activists who spearheaded the protest movements, and mainstream Islamists. Programmes aimed at youth leaders include the Leaders for Democracy Arabic project, sponsored by the US state department's Middle East partnership initiative. A number of Arab activists, including the Egyptian democracy and human rights activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, were invited to an event hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington last month – one of many recent conferences and seminars. Meetings between high-ranking US officials – such as the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer – and the Muslim Brotherhood took place in Cairo last month, while the deputy chairman of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party has recently returned from a visit to Washington to "discuss democratic transition".

Washington hopes that these rising forces can be stripped of their ideological opposition to US hegemony and turned into pragmatists, fully integrated into the existing US-led international order. Dogma is not a problem, as long as the players agree to operate within parameters delineated for them, and play the power game without questioning its rules. It remains to be seen, however, if they risk losing their popular base in return for US favours.

Containment and integration are not only political, but economic...

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