We won’t know for some time the long-term impact of the Arab Spring or which nations will thrive, but, for now, the United States views Tunisia as a model of what should happen. That was one message given to Monday’s State Department briefing of editorialists from the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers) in Washington.
Tunisia, where the news of 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouzazi’s self-immolation sparked the first national uprising, offers the most promising example. According to Taylor, it has successfully written a constitution and elected a constituent assembly. Its interim government is a coalition of moderate Islamist and secular parties. Tunisia “worked hard, shows moderation and is a model for the region,” said Taylor, noting “They’re doing the right thing.” Tunisia, with its10 million people, could be a solid ally in this new Middle East.
Because Tunisia is already looking at a significant deficit in its first budget, the United States is looking to make a $100 million cash transfer, $30 million in loan guarantees allowing it to borrow ten times that much in the international financial markets, and $2o million in an enterprise fund to leverage private sector investments. Walker also sees a return of the Peace Corps to Tunisia.
The prospects are not so clear for Egypt, a dramatically larger and more strategically pivotal country, where we already have a large economic investment. To outside observers and to many Egyptians, the current situation is fraught with peril, but to Taylor, the five preliminary election rounds have been “pretty good ones.”
While the Muslim Brotherhood promises to be middle of the road and focus on economics, the United States is waiting to see what kind of government emerges before deciding how to be of assistance. A presidential election is anticipated mid May. The problem right now is that no one is particularly in charge, and recent raids on NGO’s and harassment of bloggers are particularly worrisome threats to stability . Egypt, home to 85 million people, is also in financial crisis. Congress has conditioned future assistance on Egypt’s continuing to adhere to the Camp David Accords’ commitment to Israel and to the continuing transfer of power from military to civilian authorities. But this commitment is not a done deal.
Libya has plenty of money (from oil and gas production, with another $100 billion stashed around the world by Ghaddafi) but is far behind in the democratization process. June 23 marks the first election in 40 years. They don’t know how to create voting lists or even how to handle ballot boxes. If Libya gets its act together, it could actually be a source of financial assistance for Tunisia and Egypt. The United States is also counting on money from Eurozone and wealthy Arab nations to aid “awakening” cash-strapped nations. But given the parlous economic condition of Europe and the frequent difficulties of Arab states to act in concert, the fulfillment of this expectation is unclear.
Down the road, Yemen and eventually Syria may emerge to join those in the transitional office portfolio, which has the potential to influence the balance of power in the region and the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East. Obviously the timing here is uncertain and the outcomes, at this early stage, seriously in question.
Whether the American position, as expressed by our State Department is just optimistic thinking or rooted in hard reality, will become clearer in the next few months, especially in light of developments with Iran, which were not addressed..
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Photo by John R. McClelland