Middle East protests revive democratic spirit

In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, the nearly peaceful overthrow of Egypt’s President Mubarak, and now Libya’s brutal crackdown on opposition protests, hundreds of thousands of protesters have turned out in the streets of major cities across the Middle East from Iran and Iraq to Yemen and Bahrain. Opposition leaders and religious figures are calling everywhere for people to demand more accountability from their governments, and the democratic consequences will be far reaching for years to come.

Thousands of protesters choked Pearl Square on Friday in Bahrain's capital.

Many Arab governments including monarchies in these oil-rich but desperately poor states are now calculating whether to engage the opposition in an effort to bring economic and political reform to the region, or whether to hold onto power with all the desperation and violence that has marked the upending of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. The country continued descending into chaos as opposition forces, now well-organized, have armed themselves, taken much of eastern Libya, and are marching on the capital Tripoli, where Qaddafi has hired hundreds of mercenaries from nearby Chad and other countries to do much of his fighting. The scene in Libya is sure to get more bloody as the opposition works to unseat the Libyan dictator, who has come under international condemnation for using tanks and planes to kill hundreds of his own people.

In Bahrain, where an earlier crackdown by government forces cleared Pearl Square in that countries capital city Manama, and led to the deaths of dozens of protesters, there is a renewed effort by the country’s Shiite majority to push the Sunni minority out of power. Thousands of protesters throng in Pearl Square, setting up camps, staging demonstrations, and calling for the removal of the country’s long-entrenched monarchy.

In Iraq, America’s difficult democratic experiment is now suffering from “shock and awe” as thousands of protesters there poured into the streets demanding more reform, an end to corruption, and a withdrawal of U.S. military presence. Despite calls by the government for people not to take to the streets, and a security ban on vehicles in the streets, thousands of people are protesting in Iraq’s major cities, and there is information coming in that government troops and police have fired on crowds, killing some protesters.

Libyan dictator escalates violence against civilians

Falling like dominos...

The cycle of violence in the Middle East escalates daily as democratic protesters confront dictators and authoritarian regimes demanding reform. In Libya, the situation is getting especially ugly as the world’s longest-reigning dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, promises never to bow out of the conflict in spite of hundreds of people who have been killed in recent violence and thousands who are demanding he leave. The cycle is starkest where military forces and police fire on mourners marching in funeral processions honoring the dead, creating more funerals, more marches, and more anger.

Yesterday the son of Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, went on public television to inform Libyans that there would be no concessions and that they would never cede power, setting up a conflict that will surely cripple the nation and inevitably lead to the downfall of this regime. He also warned of civil war and occupation, and defiantly said that the regime would fight until the last man.

“Libya is made up of tribes and clans and loyalties,” Qaddafi claimed. “There will be civil war.” He also warned, “The West and Europe and the United States will not accept the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Libya.”

The people of Libya are angry, and the more the dictatorship turns its guns on them the more of them will turn out into the streets demanding change, the more will be shot, the more people will march in funeral processions, the more people will be shot. This cycle of violence and the stubborn insistence of the regime will lead to an all out insurgency, revolution, and possibly civil war. This is the ultimate price that must be paid for political transformation in countries that are deeply authoritarian and long overdue for substantive change.

Bahrain protests turn violent

The effects of the successful democratic protests in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired thousands, perhaps millions, of ordinary Muslims to turn out the streets in an effort to draw attention to the authoritarian and often brutal regimes under which they live. Protesters in North Africa and the throughout the Persian Gulf are demanding political reform and elections in an inspiring show of solidarity against oppression. This is good news.

The bad news is this. People in countries like Iran, Bahrain, and Yemen face entrenched governments desperate to hold onto power, governments armed with U.S. made weapons once used to prop up governments against Islamic fundamentalism now  used to beat and murder peaceful protesters. How did the U.S. become complicit in the deaths of foreign nationals seeking democratic reform? Easy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend has long been the hallmark of American foreign policy. The U.S. government in its insistence that it is protecting the national security of its people has armed one dictator to depose another, and now those arms are being used to suppress the swell of democracy that is growing throughout the Middle East.

American foreign policy has proceeded on such short-sighted terms before. In Egypt the U.S. propped up the sham Presidency of Mubarak with arms and foreign aid that would later be used (responsibly, thanks to the patience and professionalism of the Egyptian military) against the democratic protesters. This also happened in Iraq and Tunisia and many other places where the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” amounts to a schizophrenic interpretation of who are enemies and friends actually are.

Now the people of Bahrain who want political reform and elections are paying the price for our foreign policy schizophrenia. American citizens must be embarrassed that its government purports to promote democracy around the world, even while its tax-funded, American-made weapons are now being used to suppress the spirit of democracy with deadly force.