The rapidly changing political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East has posed a number of challenges for the Obama administration, the most pressing of them being to simply understand what is going on. Initially caught off guard by the events on the ground and then pressed in between two competing narratives – the urge for "democracy promotion" and a fear of Islamic radicalization following the destabilization of friendly regimes — the administration is now desperately guessing which of the available options would better serve U.S. national interests in the region.
This confusion is perfectly reflected in agonizing attempts by the American media to appropriately label the nature of the ongoing (and apparently still spreading) Arab uprising. Sure, certain established guidance is being followed: extreme caution is used in reports from the countries run by U.S.-friendly rulers, while the harshest language is reserved for unfriendly or outright hostile regimes. Thus, Saudi Arabia, which Washington Post's editorial has accused in encouraging "both the Egyptian and Bahraini governments to put down protests by force", is called in the same editorial a "seemingly stable kingdom." Bahrain, where 7 protesters were killed and dozens wounded after armed forces fired on them — but which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet (if someone has forgotten) — is defined as "business-friendly." In contrast, Syria, where so far no protests have taken place, was labeled a "repressive police state." (The readers of this blog know me as being no fan of Freedom House, to say the least. Yet, even the FH folks saw no difference between Saudi Arabia and Syria when assigning to them exactly the same ratings.)
After certain hesitation, the U.S. media have finally decided that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt is to be described as a "revolution." A revolution? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "revolution" as "a fundamental change in political organization; …the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed." Now, let me see. For almost 60 years (since 1953), Egypt has been ruled essentially by the military (with a servile parliament on the side), with former officers serving as front men (a.k.a. presidents): Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and, finally, Hosni Mubarak. Since Mubarak's ouster, on Feb.11, Egypt has been governed directly by a junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. What then has changed? Nothing. Oh wait, the parliament was dissolved. Revolution, schmevolution…
But the real tightrope to walk turned to be reporting about events in Iraq. As we all know, after liberation from the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq was solidly on its path to democracy (actually former president George W. Bush already called Iraq a "young democracy"), obviously eliminating any need for another revolution. Yet, on Feb. 25, Iraq had what was dubbed as "Day of Rage." According to Stephanie McCrummen of the Post, thousands of people across the country went on the streets demanding "adequate electricity, clean water and a decent job." And they were not simply "demanding." McCrummen reports that "crowds stormed provincial buildings, freed prisoners…[and] forced the resignation of the governor in southern Basra and the entire city council in Fallujah."
Sounds like a "revolution" to me. But not to McCrummer who hastened to assure us that:
"The protests…were intended to call for reform of Maliki's government, not revolution."
She later elaborated:
"The Iraq protests were different from many of the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in that demonstrators were calling for reforms, not for getting rid of the government."
Now, let me get it straight. If protesters are calling for reforms and storm buildings and free prisoners and force the resignation of government officials, this is only "protests." In order to upgrade these "protests" to "revolution", we supposedly need a banner "Down with Maliki's government" flying over the crowd. No banner, no revolution! Schmevolution, revolution…
(– Hello, sir! How may I help you?
— Well, I'd like to order some…uh, mass protests. You know, some economic demands, like electricity and clean water, plus some calls for reforms. Also, perhaps, a bit of storming of government buildings. But nothing radical and no blood, of course!
— Not a revolution, sir?
— Oh God, no! Just a nice, peaceful revolt.
— Certainly, sir. Check or plastic?
— I'll pay cash.)
It seems that this "revolutionary" smokescreen was used with the only purpose: to deflect our attention from the way "Day of Rage" ended. Iraqi security forces fired on the crowd killing at least 29 protesters. The following day, soldiers from an army intelligence unit detained hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals. They were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution. So much for the "young democracy!"
Given the lingering memories of "Day of Rage" in Iraq, it's little wonder that the violence in Libya came almost as a blessing for the White House, helping it to regain the clarity of its messaging. Gaddafi was immediately called "war criminal" and his security services were described as "mercenaries and thugs." Yet, some terminological issues remain. For example, as reported by the LA Times, the White House has no "clarity on a key issue: Who's in charge of the Libyan revolution?" For now, the people fighting Gaddafi are labeled with rather neutral "rebels." Should they prove to be unsympathetic to Western interests, the "rebels" will be promptly downgraded to "insurgents", "guerrillas" or, worse, "terrorists." If, however, they profess allegiance to the Western "values" — and, even more importantly, provide uninterrupted flow of Libyan oil to the world markets — promotion to "freedom fighters" will follow. We have been there before.