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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Tunisia isn't only about Tunisia

By Jennifer Rubin

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.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 26, 2011; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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Jennifer, see the many many comments back and forth earlier today on your blog about Obama's foreign policy. It's not just me. You stand almost alone in your naivete in this matter.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 26, 2011 5:18 PM | Report abuse

How can anyone know whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in Egypt? That would be a catastrophe on a par with Khomeini in Iran.

We need to be smart here, which would be an anomaly for American foreign policy. It's heartening that there are strong secular elements in the anti-Mubarak protests, and it's inevitable that Mubarak's rule will end fairly soon. The best outcome would be a peaceful transfer of power to the secular opposition supported by the military. Is that even possible? Or would the Muslim Brotherhood that sired al Qaeda win an election or otherwise seize power?

Posted by: eoniii | January 26, 2011 5:57 PM | Report abuse

You either completely misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued what Feltman said. He meant that what happened in Tunisia was not influenced by any external forces but purely by internal factors. Your deliberate attempt, along with "experts" such as Whiton -- a former Bush "national security official" -- to criticize Feltman (who is, of course, an Obama administration official) for saying something he didn't shows that you really know nothing about the situation. The "conventional wisdom" he speaks of doesn't apply to Tunisia, a secular Muslim country where Islamist parties have almost no appeal. But it's a lot easier to generalize and distort than to get the facts straight. Good work.

Posted by: Donzinho | January 26, 2011 6:55 PM | Report abuse

I hadn't noticed that you keep elevating Christian Whiton currently to a job that he never held!

He is not now nor has ever been a "national security official", a nice Rubinesque touch.

According to his own bio, he was State Department Deputy Special Envoy for the promotion of democracy and human rights in North Korea. (which even liberals can see is nowhere near Tunisia)

Before that he was an MBA, M&A guy on Wall Street with KPMG

But to be fair, there is no reason to believe he knows any less about Tunisia than he did about North Korea. LOL

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 26, 2011 7:31 PM | Report abuse

These revolutions will keep increasing in frequency in freedom stifled countries as the internet amplifies the effectiveness of resistance through civil disobedience to unacceptable government policies.

Solidarity from America, the actions in Egypt and Tunisia are not going unnoticed.

Posted by: StephenVanDyke | January 26, 2011 9:24 PM | Report abuse

@johnmarshall5446 - you're the one who is naive here. Its impossible to credibly believe that the Egyptian revolt going on now was not influenced by the recent events in Tunisia. Both of these situations are also undeniably influenced by the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan now have (although imperfect) representative democracies where a decade ago there were none. The Tunisians and Egyptians have awakened to the idea the dictatorship is not the only viable form of government in that part of the world. Its entirely possible that the first part of this century could be looked back upon as a transformative Arab Reformation period, but only if we continue to oppose the dictators and support freedom seekers.

Posted by: Illini | January 26, 2011 10:41 PM | Report abuse

@Illini - Of course the Egyptian activists were inspired by events in Tunisia - and it would be wonderful to see a pro-democracy transformation among the Arab countries - but please don't qualify Iraq and Afghanistan so blandly as "imperfect" democracies. They're a mess. Karzai is a joke - a horribly corrupt president - who's only able to stay in power because the US has propped him up. As for Maliki in Iraq - he currently controls all the security forces (which still resort to abuse and torture), the Iraq high court has just put control of even more agencies in his hands, the man who got the most votes in the March elections has effectively been shut out of power, and Maliki was able to seal the deal only because of the support of a clerical "kingmaker" who hates the US and has effectively put Maliki himself on notice. Maliki is a Saddam-lite with a made-in-the-USA imprimatur, from whom the US expects that wondrous elixir called "stability" in Iraq - which, with Sunni insurgents bombing virtually at will and Kurds in the north intent on autonomy, he will never be able to provide. If a wave of democratic revolution does sweep the region, don't be surprised if Maliki is one of the dominoes who will tumble.

Posted by: rober1jf | January 27, 2011 1:42 AM | Report abuse

With half the population in the Arab world under the age of 18, with unemployment rates up to 50%, with no or practically no economic growth, and with dysfunctional kleptocratic governments in charge, it is no wonder that the Arab world is constantly on the brink of uprisings.
And it is way too late to introduce the political and economic reforms which might blunt the extremism that is now expressing itself in Egypt. All there is now is force.

Posted by: Beniyyar | January 27, 2011 7:55 AM | Report abuse

and to think so many countries still think creating the nation-state of palestine will somehow not just add one more dysfunctional Arab state twittering between secular or Islamist dictatorship...I kind of wish there was more support for enlightened monarchy.

sorry, Ms. Rubin should not be confusing Tunisia's tactics with likely outcomes. Yes, Egypt (and today add Yemen) are following Tunisian tactics, but the history of Tunisia would indicate a very different outcome than any other Arab country.

Posted by: K2K2 | January 27, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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