Tunisia isn't only about Tunisia
Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, traveled to Tunisia and then made this pronouncement to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:
What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people.
He should have stayed home. A less helpful and less accurate statement would be hard to come by.
I spoke to someone who has been in Cairo and understands the nexus between Tunisia and other Middle East countries. Stephen McInerney of the Project for Middle East Democracy says that the events in Tunisia are anything but unique to that country. To the contrary, the massive protests in Egypt were "inspired by and a direct result of" recent events in Tunisia. Despite Feltman's dim view of the trans-national nature of democratic movements, McInerney says, "I was in Cairo the day Ben Ali stepped down. Immediately the conversation was, 'How do we translate this to Egypt?'"
In fact, the mass political protests in Egypt would not, he says, have been possible and would not have been so successful if not for Tunisia. A mass movement, run almost entirely by secular groups and directed solely at Egypt's political system is "unprecedented," he explains. The Muslim Brotherhood allowed its members to participate, but did not organize or populate the street demonstrations, he says. "Egyptians are watching very carefully what happens in Tunisia " he reports. It sends a "powerful message" to Egyptians, Algerians and throughout the region that secular democracy can be theirs as well.
McInerney says the most helpful thing we can do (presumably, other than muzzling Feltman) is to show we are "supportive" of Tunisia and that when those in the region embrace democracy, "We will be with them."
As for Egypt specifically, McInerney would like to see from the administration a strong statement of support and a "message to the Egyptian military not to turn the equipment we have given them on the Egyptian people." A speech by the president would be fine, but what is needed, McInerney advises, is to impress on the Mubarak government that it should not use violence against its people and to use "aid and trade" to incentivize the Egyptian government to respect the rights of its people.
Christian Whiton, a former national security official, has a similar take. He e-mails me: "With Egypt we ought to be using our celebrated access to the military (which we fund north of $1B a year) to make a clear message: do not attack your own people; if you do, all aid ends. It might also make sense for their check this month to get lost in the mail to stress the point. We should also lean heavily in private and public for Mubarak to meet with apparent leader(s) of protests who emerge to discuss political transition." He's not fond of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement stressing that the Egyptian government is "stable" ("obviously incorrect, but also off key").
Feltman notwithstanding, the powerful message of Tunisia is not simply that Tunisians can rule themselves, but that Muslim people throughout the region can. He explains:
The conventional wisdom was that the only viable alternatives to autocrats like Ben Ali and Mubarak were Islamists, especially the Brotherhood in Egypt. The Egyptian government of course echoes this in all of its government-to-government channels with the U.S. They also contributed to it by repressing or corrupting non-Islamist reformists (liberals). Now we see people in the streets motivated by angst of economic malaise, but also linking it to corruption and cronyism of their leaders. There is no talk of redemption through an Iranian-style arrangement, and the Islamists don't seem able to take advantage, at least not yet and hopefully never.
Unless, of course, the administration squanders another opportunity to stand for human rights and democracy.
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