Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tunisia

Where do Walls Work?

After suffering a series of terrorist attacks — most recently the slaughter of more than three dozen mostly British tourists in the beach resort town of Sousse — the Tunisian government has had enough. Speaking on Tunisian state television on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced that Tunisia would build a 100-mile long wall to separate Tunisia from civil war-torn Libya, where the Islamic State is rapidly taking root. “With our army we are building a protective [wall] along [the border], especially in the area between Ras Jedir and Dehiba, which is approximately 168 kilometers long,” he said. He expects the wall will, along with other counterterrorism tactics, decrease terrorism now pushing Tunisia to the brink of collapse. Read More

After suffering a series of terrorist attacks — most recently the slaughter of more than three dozen mostly British tourists in the beach resort town of Sousse — the Tunisian government has had enough. Speaking on Tunisian state television on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced that Tunisia would build a 100-mile long wall to separate Tunisia from civil war-torn Libya, where the Islamic State is rapidly taking root. “With our army we are building a protective [wall] along [the border], especially in the area between Ras Jedir and Dehiba, which is approximately 168 kilometers long,” he said. He expects the wall will, along with other counterterrorism tactics, decrease terrorism now pushing Tunisia to the brink of collapse.

Kudos to the Tunisian government for doing what is necessary to defend its citizenry from terrorists and predators who migrated illegally into the country. Tunisia has every reason to believe such a wall would be effective. At the same time, however, its efforts show both international counter-terror hypocrisy and how American politics sacrifices security for posturing.

First the hypocrisy: The international community still condemns Israel’s security wall (which, in reality, is more of a security fence) even though its counterterrorism effectiveness is clear: Since its construction, terror attacks inside Israel have declined 90 percent. Despite their opposition to Israel’s security wall, walls now exist between India and Pakistan (and a new one is coming), Saudi Arabia and Yemen (and a new one is coming there as well), Morocco and Algeria, and Turkey and Syria. Kenya is building one along its border with Somalia. All of these, like Israel’s with the West Bank, cover disputed borders or are built entirely on disputed territory. The United Nations is perhaps the most hypocritical of them all, as it condemns Israel on one hand, and yet on the other built a buffer zone to separate Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus from independent Cyprus through which it restricts movement of those with origins in the opposite side. Simply put, the question of disputed borders has absolutely no bearing on the utility and legality of walls (the latter based on the precedent set by the United Nations).

Then, of course, the question for American policymakers: No country tolerates illegal immigration to the extent that the United States does. One of the ironies of the current influx of Mexicans and citizens of Latin American countries northward across the American border is how much more stringent Mexican laws are with regard to illegals inside Mexico compared to the United States. It’s intellectual nonsense to suggest that walls and border fences cannot be built or do not work, when so many countries in the world’s most insecure regions through harsh experience have determined the opposite too be true. Nor is it correct to draw moral equivalence to the Soviet-built Berlin Wall unless, of course, those who make this argument mean to suggest that Mexico is a totalitarian dictatorship like East Germany was.

The Tunisian premier is right, as is the Kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Kenya, and India. How tragic it is that political posturing prevents President Obama from understanding the same.

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Tunisia’s Fragile Success Under Attack

Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

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Tunisia was struck by a terrible act of terrorism today: gunmen, presumably of Islamist persuasion, stormed the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, killing tourists indiscriminately. Early news accounts suggest that at least 19 people were killed before security forces stormed the building and killed the terrorists. This is a sobering reminder of the risks that Tunisia faces, all the more jolting for someone like me who was in Tunisia relatively recently (I spent a week there in October as part of an International Republican Institute team observing the parliamentary election).

This may cause some to wonder if Tunisia is truly an Arab Spring success story. They shouldn’t. Terrorist attacks also happen in countries such as France and Britain and the United States without calling into question the fundamental legitimacy of the state. Granted, Tunisia’s democracy is much newer and more fragile, but it has been making impressive strides since popular protests, sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit seller, ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. Since then, Tunisia has seen two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2014, as well as one presidential election, in late 2014.

The elections have been free and fair (as I saw for myself), and the results have been relatively heartening. The Islamist Ennahda party was the top vote getter in 2011 but after taking power it voluntarily gave up the prime minister’s office to a technocrat in order to reassure voters worried about an Egyptian-style Muslim Brotherhood takeover. In the more recent parliamentary election, Ennahda finished in second place, with 28 percent of the vote, with the top vote getter being a secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (“Call of Tunisia”), which won 37.5 percent.

In the December presidential election, the winner, with 55.6 percent of the vote, was Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old warhorse who served in numerous cabinet posts under Ben Ali and helped to found Nidaa Tounes. The new prime minister Habib Essid is another veteran of the Ben Ali cabinet and member of Nidaa Tounes, but in order to form a government he had to share power with Ennahda and two smaller parties.

Thus Tunisia has a truly representative government led by secularists but with significant representation from Islamists who, by previously giving up power, have shown they are less authoritarian than their counterparts in Egypt or Turkey–or simply less able to seize power in such a secular state.

To be sure Tunisia has significant challenges ahead, particularly in reviving a moribund economy that has been weighed down by high levels of corruption and state spending and in maintaining security in the face of terrorist groups that remain all too active.  If the current government can’t deliver on the promise of a better life for ordinary Tunisians, the consequences will not be good for the future of Tunisian democracy, And there is no doubt that greater freedom has also provided greater opportunity for some terrorist groups to stage attacks such as the one today. The attack today is a significant blow because it jeopardizes the tourist trade which is a vital part of Tunisia’s economy and its best bet for economic growth.

But on the whole, and despite setbacks like the one today, Tunisia remains an impressive, if fragile, success story–the only one to emerge from the Arab Spring. It deserves more American support and more American notice. It shouldn’t take a terrorist attack for Americans to pay attention to Tunisia.

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Tunisia Busts Through Arab Glass Ceiling

There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

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There isn’t much good news coming out of the Arab world nowadays—civil war in Syria and Libya, state failure in Yemen, sectarian repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the struggle against the Islamic State and radical Shi’ite militias in Iraq—but Tunisia is increasingly becoming a consistent exception to the rule.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring. After overthrowing dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians had a rough couple of years: Ben Ali stole billions, and it has been a constant struggle to recover even a fraction of those lost resources. The root of the Arab Spring was a desire for economic and political accountability, but the achievement of that is easier said than done. Throw into the mix the collapse of state control in Libya and the flood of Libyan weapons and refugees throughout the region, and Tunisia seemed to be buffeted by, if not in the midst, of a perfect storm. As the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim characterized it, in the decades before the Arab Spring, political organization devolved into a competition between the autocrats and theocrats; any more liberal group that sought to occupy the space in between ended up attacked by both sides.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have surprised that Ennahda, a staunch Islamist grouping, won an initial victory in post-Arab Spring Tunisia, taking 89 of 217 seats in the October 2011 assembly elections; the next highest vote-getter won only 29 seats. This raised concern both inside Tunisia and abroad that Tunisia would be but the latest example of the “one man, one vote, one time” dynamic so common in the Middle East. But Tunisians kept up the pressure. In this brilliant stunt, a Tunisian NGO reminded people what the cost of apathy might be.

However, unlike Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president who became Egypt’s first democratically elected ruler as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties dominated Egypt’s initial elections, Ennahda to its credit learned that Tunisians had no desire to experience tyranny of the majority and have religious precepts shoved down their throats. Accordingly, it agreed to power sharing and eventually new elections. COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot was an election observer last autumn in Tunisia, as Tunisians flocked to the polls to elect a new parliament; he wrote up his experience here. In the months since, Tunisians have flocked to the polls to elect a president, and then a run-off to confirm the victor.

Now it appears that the Tunisians are getting further recognition for their gains. Freedom House recently released its new freedom in the world ranking, and Tunisia has made history as the first Arab country to be granted a “free” ranking. (In the past, the freest Muslim majority state was actually Mali, but the coup and civil war there ended that streak.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement; there most certainly is, as Freedom House itself notes. That said, it’s important to give credit where credit is due—and much is due to the Tunisian people.

Many observers and diplomats dismiss the idea of Arab democracy as impossible; they embrace cultural relativism and suggest that Arab culture simply doesn’t allow and won’t tolerate freedom. At best, they warn, it will descend into extremism and violence as in Gaza, Syria, and Libya. Diplomats often point to such examples as an excuse to never push for reform in the first place.

But Tunisia is an exception to the rule and can no longer be so easily dismissed. Rather than embrace the mediocre, it is a reminder that Arab states should be held to the same standards as non-Arab states; they should be pressured to reform and supported when they do. Who knows? Tunisia may be first, but there is no reason why it should be last.

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Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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Will Tunisia Defy Arab Spring Pessimism?

Many writers at COMMENTARY cautiously welcomed the Arab Spring, myself included, even with a dose of caution about what might happen should the Muslim Brotherhood hijack the popular uprising that caught them as much as the regimes against which they plotted by surprise.

It was not long before the Arab Spring turned chilly. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates rose to dominate Egypt and Tunisia. Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria descended into violence. While some analysts pointed out that the monarchies—Bahrain excepted—showed particular resilience amidst the winds of the Arab Spring, this might have less to do with fundamentals and could instead have been sheer dumb luck. Jordan, for example, remains highly susceptible to an uprising that could challenge if not unseat the regime. Stability in Saudi Arabia remains far from assured.

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Many writers at COMMENTARY cautiously welcomed the Arab Spring, myself included, even with a dose of caution about what might happen should the Muslim Brotherhood hijack the popular uprising that caught them as much as the regimes against which they plotted by surprise.

It was not long before the Arab Spring turned chilly. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates rose to dominate Egypt and Tunisia. Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria descended into violence. While some analysts pointed out that the monarchies—Bahrain excepted—showed particular resilience amidst the winds of the Arab Spring, this might have less to do with fundamentals and could instead have been sheer dumb luck. Jordan, for example, remains highly susceptible to an uprising that could challenge if not unseat the regime. Stability in Saudi Arabia remains far from assured.

The fundamental problem has been that both governments and opposition movements have embraced the rhetoric of democracy, but not its spirit. Opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have looked at the Arab Spring as an opportunity to seize power and replicate the same dictatorship against which they once fought.

The exception, of course, has been Tunisia. Ennahda, an Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality in elections to form the government which would oversee drafting of a new constitution but, against the backdrop of popular discord with its conservatism, it agreed to step down last month in favor of a caretaker government rather than seek to dominate as have Islamist parties elsewhere in the Middle East. Today, polls show that 70 percent of Tunisians believe their country is heading in the right direction, a sharp uptick since only 15 percent believed it was before Ennahda agreed to step down.

Tunisia isn’t out of the woods yet. Oussama Romdhani, a former communications minister under the Ben Ali government, yet a figure widely respected as a self-made and honest man despite his association with the previous regime, has a must-read column in Al-Arabiya assessing the current state of Tunisian politics and the dangers which lurk ahead. Every post-Arab Spring government, even the best intentioned, has had to confront unrealistic expectations of supporters and the conspiracy theories of critics. Still, rather than give into America’s new isolation trend, it is important to support Tunisia as it moves forward, because if one Arab state can navigate Arab Spring turbulence into a more tranquil future, then it can become a model for others who otherwise might teeter between Islamist dictatorship or regression to more secular authoritarianism.

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Embrace the Anti-Islamist Backlash

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill. Read More

Against the backdrop of Washington’s collective Attention Deficit Disorder, the coup in Egypt is ancient history and the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey are forgotten. Neither should be, as they are indicative of a trend that the United States should both recognize and upon which it should act.

The coup in Egypt was against political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood had promised Egyptians accountability and economic development, but ousted President Mohamed Morsi gave the ol’ bait-and-switch and focused on imposing the Brotherhood’s intolerant and religiously conservative social agenda. To convince Egyptians, disgusted with decades of the military’s corrupt and authoritarian rule, to reconsider the military as the lesser of evils took special skill.

This summer’s protests in Turkey were also the result of a long-simmering liberal backlash against the ruling party’s autocracy and Islamism.

Now, there are signs that Islamists have jumped the shark in Jordan as well. David Schenker—the best analyst of Jordan (and Syria) in Washington—points me to this story, from the Arabic press in Jordan: An Islamist deputy proposed a bill that would mandate that Jordan’s laws be harmonized with Sharia, Islamic law. Bad news for the Islamists, though: They could muster only 27 votes out of 150. Jordan is by no means a democracy and its elections are far from free and fair, but it does allow Islamists to run and, at times, the Muslim Brotherhood has been effectively the largest parliamentary bloc.

In Tunisia, secularists are also rallying as Islamists increasingly turn to assassination and show their true, anti-democratic colors. In the United Arab Emirates as well, the Islamist al-Islah party is on the defensive, its own coup plot disrupted.

Iranians repeatedly have shown their disgust with the theocrats who have eviscerated their sovereignty in the name of religion.

For too long, the United States has reacted to events without a clear strategy. While George W. Bush articulated a strategy in the wake of 9/11, his national-security staff lacked the will and ability to transform vision into reality and enforce policy discipline on the interagency process.

Democratization is an important—and laudable—goal, but it cannot come instantly, only when the right circumstances are set. This should not be an excuse to embrace the status quo (as too many in the State Department do), but to push the region in a direction where true liberalism is possible. To do so requires defeating the ideology of political Islam, an ideology no less noxious than the various autocratic ideologies which blighted the 20th century. In the current issue of National Review, I argue that the United States should embrace a ‘roll-back’ strategy against the Muslim Brotherhood and, more broadly, political Islamism.

The signs are many that ordinary Arabs, Turks, and Iranians have started to recognize that religion is no panacea for worldly ills. How unfortunate it is that U.S. policymakers are not seizing this opportunity—and even appear willing to seize defeat from the jaws of victory in Iran, Turkey, and across the region.

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The Sputtering Arab Spring

It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

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It is not just in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt that the Arab Spring has taken an ominous turn. So too in the North African cradle of the movement.

In Tunisia protests continue after the murder of socialist and secularist politician Mohamed Brahmi, a key opponent of the ruling Ennahda party, an Islamist group.

In Libya another secularist politician–Abdul-Salam al-Musmari, one of the leaders of the movement to topple Muammar Gaddafi–has been murdered in an attack blamed on Islamists. His supporters, too, are up in arms.

This can be seen as part of the same struggle now playing out in Egypt and Syria between Islamists and their more secular adversaries. The United States has an obvious stake in the outcome–we don’t want to see a Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, although we also don’t want to see repressive military regimes that drive their population into terrorism.

This is why it’s vitally important–as Michael Doran and I argued in Foreign Policy magazine–to develop our capacity for waging political warfare, as we did in the early days of the Cold War, when the U.S. helped various anti-Communist forces. Today we should be helping anti-Islamist forces. Instead, because we have let our capacity for political warfare atrophy, we are forced to either send F-16s and Predators to push regime change (as in Libya in 2011) or sit by ineffectually (as in much of the Middle East ever since).

There needs to be a better way–the U.S. needs to be able to overtly and covertly support more moderate and secular forces in the battle over the future of countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where there is an excellent chance of a decent and democratic outcome. Instead the widespread perception is of American retreat, leaving our natural allies at the mercy of radicals.

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Assassination Rocks Tunisia

That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

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That the Arab Spring has turned distinctly chilly throughout the Middle East is no surprise. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown itself as committed to anti-Semitism and antagonistic to democracy as its detractors feared. In Libya, militant Islamist factions continue to hamper Libya’s development, and make Benghazi and much of Libya unsafe. Syria remains embroiled in a civil war, which will see no winner emerge who will do anything but undermine regional security. Through all this bad news, however, diplomats could cling to Tunisia. The small, relatively wealthy North African country was the place where the Arab Spring first erupted. Even though Islamists had won Tunisia’s first elections, they appeared to hew a more moderate line, albeit with hiccups along the way.

Earlier today, Tunisia time, that changed:

A prominent Tunisian opposition politician was shot dead outside his home on Wednesday, in a killing the prime minister condemned as a political assassination and a strike against the “Arab Spring” revolution. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said the identity of the killer of Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist-led government, was unknown.

Belaid, who died in the hospital after being shot in the capital Tunis, was a leading member of the opposition Popular Front party. The government has faced many protests over economic hardship. Hampered by declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone, it has struggled to deliver the better living standards that many Tunisians had hoped for.

And it says Al Qaeda-linked militants have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state. Police, who demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office last month, say they do not have the appropriate resources to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and domestic Islamist militants who have easy access to weapons from neighboring Libya.

Let us hope that the Obama administration’s response to the cutting down of a prominent secular politician will not be to supply Tunisia’s Islamist rulers with F-16s or other advanced weaponry. And let us hope that the Obama administration and the State Department have a plan to prevent the Al Qaeda threat from taking root in Tunisia, and that the plan is not simply to sit on the sidelines and let the worst scenarios develop, something which has contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise in northern Mali and utter chaos in Syria.

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The Non-Response to Benghazi, Four Months Later

Today marks four months since the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, which killed our ambassador and three other Americans. Justice still has not been done—and it looks increasingly unlikely that it will ever be done.

Just a couple of days ago a Tunisian court freed Ali Harza, a Tunisian man who was one of the few to be charged in connection with the assault. This is what comes from giving the FBI the lead in the response to this assault on American territory. The criminal investigation appears to be going nowhere fast, which is hardly surprising given how hard it is to gather evidence and bring indictments under such chaotic conditions. The only mystery is why this isn’t being treated as what it is—an act of war on the United States that deserves a military response.

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Today marks four months since the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, which killed our ambassador and three other Americans. Justice still has not been done—and it looks increasingly unlikely that it will ever be done.

Just a couple of days ago a Tunisian court freed Ali Harza, a Tunisian man who was one of the few to be charged in connection with the assault. This is what comes from giving the FBI the lead in the response to this assault on American territory. The criminal investigation appears to be going nowhere fast, which is hardly surprising given how hard it is to gather evidence and bring indictments under such chaotic conditions. The only mystery is why this isn’t being treated as what it is—an act of war on the United States that deserves a military response.

The Obama administration does not hesitate to use extra-judicial means to kill our enemies in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, but in Libya it appears to be hamstrung by legalistic niceties. There are, to be sure, legitimate concerns about undermining the sovereignty of a fledgling pro-American regime. But while unilateral American action could prove embarrassing for Libyan officials, doing nothing is the worst course of all. It sends a signal—similar to the non-response to the USS Cole bombing by the Clinton and Bush administrations—that a symbol of America can be attacked and Americans killed with impunity. That is a very dangerous message to send in a very rough region of the world.

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Is Libya Long for This World?

The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.

Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.

Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.

As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.

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The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.

Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.

Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.

As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.

Next-door Tunisia is in much better shape for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s a coherent nation-state. It’s small and can hold itself together without any trouble. It lacks the tribalism, sectarianism, and geographic division that triggers civil wars in so many Arab countries.

Libya is blessedly free of sectarianism, but it still suffers from tribalism and militant regionalism. One of those problems would be partly resolved by federalism or, if that proves impossible, entirely solved by partition, at least theoretically.

The sticking point, though—and it’s a big one—is that most of Libya’s oil fields are in Cyrenaica. If the greater Benghazi area decides to take its ball and go home with most of Libya’s wealth, watch out. It will surely mean war. And if Cyrenaica’s yearning for autonomy isn’t respected, it’s exactly what we ought to brace for.

Correction: The election in Benghazi was for local candidates, many of whom support and campaigned for autonomy for Cyrenaica. The referendum itself will be held in four weeks.

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What Do University Clashes in Tunisia Portend for Arab Spring?

Most analysts agree the Arab Spring has been a mixed bag. In Egypt, the trajectory is poor: Islamists will shape the new constitution and the unholy alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military seems intent on blackmailing the West. If Libyans can get militias under control, they may use their petrodollars to achieve true empowerment for their people. Yemen teeters on the verge of state failure, and Syria is in full-fledged civil war. Even as diplomats and the Arab Spring’s cheerleaders muzzle their enthusiasm, though, they all cite Tunisia as the country with the best chance for success. Islamists may have won in Tunisia—but they say the right things (at least to European and American audiences), and they appear to want to govern with a big tent, rather than drive secularists into the ground.

Alas, appearances may be deceiving. A clash between liberal administrators and Islamist students at the University of Manouba portends a cold front moving through Tunisia:

Clashes erupted today between Salafists and students affiliated with the the student union at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Manouba, following an altercation that ensued yesterday between two female students wearing the niqab – a veil revealing only the eyes – and the dean. Demonstrators, mainly Salafists, gathered in front of the administration building in protest of yesterday’s incident, and demanded the right for female students to wear the niqab during classes and exams. As the situation on the campus escalated, one of the Salafist students replaced the Tunisian flag with a black flag bearing the shahada – the Islamic declaration of faith. The act provoked an eruption of violence between members of the student union and other students.

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Most analysts agree the Arab Spring has been a mixed bag. In Egypt, the trajectory is poor: Islamists will shape the new constitution and the unholy alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military seems intent on blackmailing the West. If Libyans can get militias under control, they may use their petrodollars to achieve true empowerment for their people. Yemen teeters on the verge of state failure, and Syria is in full-fledged civil war. Even as diplomats and the Arab Spring’s cheerleaders muzzle their enthusiasm, though, they all cite Tunisia as the country with the best chance for success. Islamists may have won in Tunisia—but they say the right things (at least to European and American audiences), and they appear to want to govern with a big tent, rather than drive secularists into the ground.

Alas, appearances may be deceiving. A clash between liberal administrators and Islamist students at the University of Manouba portends a cold front moving through Tunisia:

Clashes erupted today between Salafists and students affiliated with the the student union at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Manouba, following an altercation that ensued yesterday between two female students wearing the niqab – a veil revealing only the eyes – and the dean. Demonstrators, mainly Salafists, gathered in front of the administration building in protest of yesterday’s incident, and demanded the right for female students to wear the niqab during classes and exams. As the situation on the campus escalated, one of the Salafist students replaced the Tunisian flag with a black flag bearing the shahada – the Islamic declaration of faith. The act provoked an eruption of violence between members of the student union and other students.

According to one Islamist student, the violence was justified. “Members of the student union were provoking us, mentioning God’s name in vain,” she said. “That was the main reason for the violence this morning.” The whole article is worth reading.

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Tunisian Spring Turns Against Gays

Of all the Arab countries which have overthrown dictators, Tunisia probably provides the most cause for optimism, despite the election of an Islamist government. While the Arab Spring turns chilly in so many countries, the Tunisian government has appeared determined both to develop Tunisia and to accept the accountability for which the Tunisian people arose.

How disappointing it is, then, that Ennahda—Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party—has decided to divert attention from the real issues Tunisia faces with an anti-gay jihad. Samir Dilou, the former spokesman for Ennahda who now is the Tunisian minister for human rights, has reportedly argued that Tunisian gays should not have freedom of speech.

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Of all the Arab countries which have overthrown dictators, Tunisia probably provides the most cause for optimism, despite the election of an Islamist government. While the Arab Spring turns chilly in so many countries, the Tunisian government has appeared determined both to develop Tunisia and to accept the accountability for which the Tunisian people arose.

How disappointing it is, then, that Ennahda—Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party—has decided to divert attention from the real issues Tunisia faces with an anti-gay jihad. Samir Dilou, the former spokesman for Ennahda who now is the Tunisian minister for human rights, has reportedly argued that Tunisian gays should not have freedom of speech.

Most progressives remain silent on the plight of gays in Tunisia or, for that matter, Iran and other Islamist states. One of the ironies of the so-called progressive movement is the animus it holds toward Israel given that Israel embraces the liberalism and tolerance for which progressives say they stand.

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The Endless Face-off Over the Veil

This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.

I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.

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This week, a few hundred students and teachers at Manouba University in Tunisia demonstrated against the niqab, or veil, which is used by some ultra-conservative women to cover their faces. It has been outlawed in Tunisian schools and government offices for decades, ever since it was described by the modern republic’s secular founder Habib Bourguiba as “that odious rag.” One sign at the demonstration said “Science before the niqab.” Another said “no to shackles, no to niqab, knowledge is free.” The protest was a counter-demonstration against an Islamist sit-in at the humanities department.

I’ve seen a few women in Tunisian cities wearing niqabs, but not very many. That kind of headgear is far more common in the Persian Gulf nations than in North Africa. While having coffee at an outdoor café in downtown Tunis, the capital, a group of women with their faces covered walked past. All the locals sitting at tables near mine eyed the women as though they had been beamed in from another planet. I assumed these ladies weren’t even Tunisians, but Saudis. They could hardly have drawn more attention to themselves had they dressed like that in a small town in Bolivia.

I can certainly understand why conservative Muslims chafe against the ban on the headscarf and the veil. For them it’s a question of religious freedom. They don’t feel like they’re infringing upon anyone’s rights by dressing that way, but the state is infringing on their rights by not allowing it.

There’s a catch, though. Some men force women in their households to cover their faces against their will. For these women, the ban is a liberation.

The American way is to allow the veil. In his much-lauded Cairo speech, President Barack Obama said it should be the Arab way, too. He said so because in some Arab countries it isn’t the way. But what about the right of women to not dress conservatively in Iran and Saudi Arabia where governments force them? And what about the rights of women to not dress conservatively in Tunisia where family members might force them?

There is no quick and easy solution that guarantees rights and freedom for all. The Muslim world has almost no chance of resolving this issue during our lifetimes, but at least Tunisians are fighting about it–for now anyway–without shooting each other.

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Lebanon: To Encourage the Others

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

John Bolton has a superb opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times today reminding us that Lebanon is a nearer prospective loss to liberalism than Egypt. Today’s concern for Egypt is about the opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. The nature of the potential stakes remains uncertain; Mubarak and Omar Suleiman have made explicit declarations of intent, but there is no clarity or political coherence from the opposition forces.

In Lebanon, by contrast, Hezbollah has already made its move. It has run the course the Muslim Brotherhood could in Egypt, first securing a role in the coalition government — without renouncing terrorism or political thuggery — and then leveraging that role to install the government of its choice. The choices for foreign governments are clear in Lebanon: either reject Hezbollah’s control of the country or accept it.

Ambassador Bolton is categorical: “We must refuse to recognize any Hezbollah-dominated government as legitimate, at least until Hezbollah fully disarms and becomes a real political party.” The timetable for concrete action will be driven in part by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose next public event, on February 7, is a hearing related to the confidential indictments issued in January for the 2005 assassinations. That timetable is a good thing; an independent process with scheduled events is guaranteed to present public decision points for foreign leaders. If a new Hezbollah-backed government terminates Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal, the reaction of the U.S. and other nations, one way or another, will be impossible to spin.

There is grave danger, as Bolton suggests, in failing to counter Hezbollah’s effective coup in Lebanon. Conversely, the payoff from countering it would be particularly high. Hezbollah’s method of government infiltration is a model for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements across the Arab world. It can be allowed to stand or it can be opposed and reversed; either response will encourager les autres — encourage the others.

The number of others who need “encouraging,” one way or the other, is growing with the unrest in Egypt. In their different ways, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen have all, in the past 48 hours, joined Tunisia in opening doors formerly closed to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal at stake, but the timing could hardly be better for making an example of Hezbollah. Its takeover of Lebanon, opposed by the Arab world, adds urgency to the theme retailed by the Muslim Brotherhood that the old governments are corrupt and ineffective. If we want the Arab nations to have breathing room in which to take genuine steps toward pluralism and democracy, one of the best things we could do is decisively block Hezbollah’s assault on those elements in Lebanon.

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Media- and NGO-Fueled Ignorance on Egypt and Tunisia

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former Knesset member and minister from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, made an important point in today’s Jerusalem Post. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt took the West by surprise, he wrote, because Westerners know almost nothing about what goes on in undemocratic societies. And this ignorance stems largely from the fact that the bodies it relies on to provide information — the media and nongovernmental organizations — devote most of their energy to the low-hanging fruit, exposing real or imagined failings by democracies, instead of focusing on dictatorships, where getting information is much harder.

The openly pro-Palestinian reporter Amira Hass provided an excellent example in Monday’s Haaretz. At a Ramallah store where everyone was watching Al Jazeera, an employee asked if she had caught what a Tunisian protester just said: that “the Palestinians’ situation is better than that of the Tunisians, that they [the Palestinians] have food.”

I told him this was the same impression members of Egyptian solidarity delegations had upon visiting the Gaza Strip after Operation Cast Lead [Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas]. They were amazed at the abundance of food, especially fruits and vegetables, they were able to find in Gaza. And I heard that not from the Israeli Civil Administration spokesmen but from Egyptians and Palestinians.

But nobody would know this from media or NGO reports. Can anyone remember reading a news story about food shortages in Egypt or Tunisia in recent years? Yet hundreds of articles have been published about alleged humanitarian distress in Gaza, including many that claimed Israel’s blockade was causing starvation.

Indeed, the UN has run an annual humanitarian-aid appeal for the West Bank and Gaza since 2003; this year, it’s seeking $567 million, making it the organization’s fifth-largest “emergency campaign.” Can anyone remember the last UN appeal for aid to Egypt or Tunisia?

The same goes for NGOs. On Amnesty International’s website, the “features” page has nothing about either Egypt or Tunisia. Yet Israel merits two condemnatory features (the only country so honored), including the top-billed story — which, naturally, alleges food shortages in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade.

Then there’s the UN Human Rights Council — which, as Rubinstein noted, actually praised the human-rights situation in both Egypt and Tunisia, even as it issued 27 separate resolutions slamming Israel.

Thus most Westerners were utterly clueless about the economic distress and oppression that fueled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Indeed, based on the available information, the reasonable assumption would have been that Gaza, not Egypt or Tunisia, was the place most likely to explode.

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein decried his own organization in 2009 for betraying its “original mission to pry open closed societies” — to shed light precisely on those dark corners where information isn’t easily available — in favor of a focus on open societies, especially Israel. That, as I’ve argued repeatedly, leaves the world’s most oppressed people voiceless.

But it turns out the obsessive media/NGO focus on Israel also has another price: depriving the West of the information it needs to make sound judgments and set wise policy.

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Wolfowitz on the Convulsions in Egypt

In an interview with the Spectator (UK), Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz makes some insightful observations as they relate to the revolution now unfolding in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wolfowitz, (a) the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist; (b) Islamists, however, are hurrying to get into the game — and in Egypt, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood increases the risk of a bad outcome; (c) Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety; and (d) we can’t be a positive force if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant or, worse, if we are perceived as encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability” for a relatively short period of time.

“The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier,” Wolfowitz says, “but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.”

He mentions democratic transitions over the past several decades, in places like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Central and Eastern Europe, and nations (like Chile) in Latin America. “Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster-style democracies,” according to Wolfowitz, “but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we.”

So far, he says, Tunisia and Egypt seem to be following this paradigm.

If Arab nations had started the kind of political reform some were advocating years ago, the current convulsions would not be happening. But Egypt is where Egypt is, and the goal of the United States should be to assist the pro-democracy forces there as best we can. Pessimism, fatalism, and lamentations are not a particularly useful guide to policy, especially when events are still unfolding and can, with a mix of skill and luck, go our way.

Nothing good is guaranteed, but nothing bad is inevitable.

In an interview with the Spectator (UK), Ambassador Paul Wolfowitz makes some insightful observations as they relate to the revolution now unfolding in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Wolfowitz, (a) the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist; (b) Islamists, however, are hurrying to get into the game — and in Egypt, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood increases the risk of a bad outcome; (c) Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety; and (d) we can’t be a positive force if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant or, worse, if we are perceived as encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability” for a relatively short period of time.

“The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier,” Wolfowitz says, “but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.”

He mentions democratic transitions over the past several decades, in places like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Central and Eastern Europe, and nations (like Chile) in Latin America. “Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster-style democracies,” according to Wolfowitz, “but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we.”

So far, he says, Tunisia and Egypt seem to be following this paradigm.

If Arab nations had started the kind of political reform some were advocating years ago, the current convulsions would not be happening. But Egypt is where Egypt is, and the goal of the United States should be to assist the pro-democracy forces there as best we can. Pessimism, fatalism, and lamentations are not a particularly useful guide to policy, especially when events are still unfolding and can, with a mix of skill and luck, go our way.

Nothing good is guaranteed, but nothing bad is inevitable.

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Sputnik, Egypt, and the Consensus

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

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The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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Chinese Government Blocks Internet Searches for ‘Egypt’

The Chinese government is taking precautions to make sure the people of China don’t get any ideas from the Egyptian protests. News of the revolt is being tightly controlled, and Internet searches for “Egypt” have been blocked on China’s state-run Internet search engines and microblogging sites:

Searches on Sina.com for “Egypt” returned a message saying, “According to relevant laws, statues and policies, the search results cannot be displayed.” A microblogging site operated by Tencent showed no results.

According to the Los Angeles Times, China’s news coverage of the situation in Egypt “has been mostly downplayed, with little mention of the underlying causes for the revolt.” It has mainly focused on the economic impact of the crisis:

Coverage, both online and in print, focused on the economic repercussions of the situation in Egypt, with the Egyptian pound falling against the dollar on Friday. No mention was made of Egypt’s rising prices or official corruption — problems with which many Chinese are all too familiar.

If there’s one great thing about the events in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s that it’s made totalitarian leaders around the world sweat quite a bit.

The Chinese government is taking precautions to make sure the people of China don’t get any ideas from the Egyptian protests. News of the revolt is being tightly controlled, and Internet searches for “Egypt” have been blocked on China’s state-run Internet search engines and microblogging sites:

Searches on Sina.com for “Egypt” returned a message saying, “According to relevant laws, statues and policies, the search results cannot be displayed.” A microblogging site operated by Tencent showed no results.

According to the Los Angeles Times, China’s news coverage of the situation in Egypt “has been mostly downplayed, with little mention of the underlying causes for the revolt.” It has mainly focused on the economic impact of the crisis:

Coverage, both online and in print, focused on the economic repercussions of the situation in Egypt, with the Egyptian pound falling against the dollar on Friday. No mention was made of Egypt’s rising prices or official corruption — problems with which many Chinese are all too familiar.

If there’s one great thing about the events in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s that it’s made totalitarian leaders around the world sweat quite a bit.

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Obama Must Act Now on Egypt

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator. Read More

The president of the United States makes $400,000 a year. He has government-provided housing, a personal chef, his own helicopter and airplane, not to mention the best personal protection in the universe. It is at times like this that he really earns all those nice perks. There is no task more difficult than managing a revolution in progress. Jimmy Carter got it wrong in Nicaragua, and Iran and went down as a failure. Ronald Reagan got it right in the Philippines and South Korea, which contributed to the overall success of his presidency.

So far, I haven’t seen much evidence that Obama is earning his salary with his response to the revolution in Egypt. On Friday, he delivered an ultra-cautious statement, telling the “Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and saying that “the people of Egypt have rights,” including “the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech and the ability to determine their own destiny.” But he stopped well short of telling Hosni Mubarak, who is clearly on his last legs, that it was time for him to go — a message that Ronald Reagan memorably delivered via his friend Senator Paul Laxalt to Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

The New York Times explains Obama’s reticence by citing a “senior administration official” who said that “Mr. Obama warned that any overt effort by the United States to insert itself into easing Mr. Mubarak out, or easing a successor in, could backfire. ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”

Problem is, taking no stand isn’t an option for the United States in this situation. For decades, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, and Mubarak has been one of our closest allies in the Middle East. Egyptian officers have been educated in the United States, its forces are equipped with American weapons, and they regularly conduct exercises with American troops. We have a large say, whether we want it or not. If Obama stays silent about Mubarak’s future, that will be interpreted within Egypt as American support for an increasingly discredited dictator.

The Working Group on Egypt, co-chaired by Bob Kagan and Michele Dunn at Brookings, suggests a more muscular response. They urge Obama to “call for free and fair elections for president and for parliament to be held as soon as possible” and for the government to “immediately lift the state of emergency” and “publicly declare that Mr. Mubarak will agree not to run for re-election.” And just to drive the point home: “We further recommend that the Obama administration suspend all economic and military assistance to Egypt until the government accepts and implements these measures.”

That’s more like it. The one recommendation I am not sold on is immediate elections (though, admittedly, there’s wiggle room in the phrase “as soon as possible”). As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, elections that occur in an atmosphere of instability can exacerbate that instability. This is an especially tricky moment in Egypt because Mubarak has ruthlessly repressed the secular opposition. The only large nongovernmental organization in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists would thus have an advantage in any immediate election, which could allow them to win, as Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, even though they have not been at the forefront of recent protests and most Egyptians would no doubt recoil from the imposition of an Iranian-style theocracy. (Whether the Brotherhood would in fact try to impose such a regime is unknown. Unfortunately, the only way to find out would be to let them take over.)

A safer alternative, to my mind, would be to call for Mubarak to step down immediately and hand over power to a transition government led by Mohammed ElBaradai, the secular technocrat who has recently returned to Egypt to become the most high-profile opposition leader. As is now happening in Tunisia, he could work with military support to prepare the way for elections in a suitable period of time — say in six months or a year.

But I think the Working Group is right to grasp that standing pat isn’t really an option anymore. In this case, the best advice was offered by a conservative Sicilian aristocrat, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in his great novel The Leopard (1958), where he wrote that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

In other words, if the U.S. is to have any hope of salvaging our alliance with Egypt, we need to embrace the change wanted by its people — not try to cling blindly to a past represented by Mubarak and his mini-me, the intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has just been appointed vice president and putative successor.

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