The Arab Spring One Year Later: An Opportunity for America to Build Arab Relations

One year ago a fellow American lay on my couch recovering from a gunshot wound while several of us were readying boiling water and glass shards from my now broken mirror as weapons to fend off gov thugs heading up the stairs who had already ransacked our apartment complex below. 

Outside a few miles away, tens of thousands of demonstrators were dodging tear gas bombs and live ammunition as they poured onto Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare in downtown Tunis, Tunisia.

The uprising in Tunisia was fully underway. As it turned out, completely caught off guard by the magnitude and fervor of the unrest, a panicked Tunisian President Ben Ali would last only two more nights before being deposed and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia. 

The stunning success of the Jasmine Revolution was the catalyst for a disenfranchised Arab youth with democratic aspirations to rise up and fight for their political freedoms in a region ruled almost exclusively by repressive authoritarian regimes.

The valor of the Tunisian protesters unwittingly ushered in a period of boundless optimism, immense struggle and perhaps the greatest turmoil the modern Middle East has ever endured.

One year later, the dust has hardly settled. Syria is on the precipice of exploding into what surely will be a brutal civil war. Revolutionary malaise and continued unrest plague both Egypt and Bahrain and little is known about the governments and transitional governments in Libya or Tunisia.  

Yet such deeply discomforting chaos presents a unique opportunity for America to restore its image in the Arab world. In order to capitalize on such an opening, The U.S. must embrace and adopt a more Arabist regional outlook and court rather than dictate to the Arab youth. 

With estimates of more than two-thirds of the Arab world under the age of 21, America has a chance to start anew and rebrand its tarnished image. 

America has already curried the favor of the Libyan people who were grateful for NATO staving off a would be massacre in the East and helping the rebels to liberate Tripoli from Gaddafi's vice like grip. 

In other countries where such a solution is not nearly straightforward, the State Department would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach before setting a strict agenda. 

In places like Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and conservative religious parties recently dominated parliamentary elections, such an acquiescent approach is contrary to previous American foreign policy agendas. However the West must recognize that the Arab Spring has shown that the will of the people will not be denied.  

If the U.S. is to oppose or subvert democratically-elected groups such as the new Islamic government in Tunisia or the Brotherhood in Egypt from the outset, we will create very hostile, perhaps even further-radicalized governments and populaces that will be loathe to work with us down the road. We have already had one such experience when the Bush administration took a confrontational and aggressive tone with Hamas after they were democratically elected in Gaza in 2005. Subsequently Hamas has returned the favor by working to undermined Fatah and the peace talks with Israel.

Islamic groups are well aware of the distrust, anxiety and even hatred that they engender in the West. Showing them a modicum of respect by agreeing to give them an opportunity to govern is a sensible and necessary approach in setting a new course in the region. This is not to say America should take a hands-off approach. But after a year of courageously taking on the authoritarian regimes, the people and whoever they elect, have the right to govern and to be heard.

Photo Credit: David Dietz