Four years ago today, frustrated Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and started a wave of uprisings in the Arab world that continue to reverberate to this day – though not in the way that many expected.
Sadly, the promise of what some call the Arab Spring has not come to pass anywhere yet, except perhaps in Tunisia, the small country where it all began.
Since then, a democracy protest movement has been crushed, with Saudi Arabian help, in Bahrain, the kingdom that hosts the US Fifth Fleet; Syrian protests for change have deteriorated into the world's bloodiest current civil war, with 200,000 dead, millions displaced from their homes, and the US fighting jihadis who became dominant in the uprising, not the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
In Egypt, a military regime in the style of Hosni Mubarak has been restored; Libya, where US and other NATO warplanes helped defeat Muammar Qaddafi, is mired in a low-level civil war.
Egypt, the largest Arab nation, is a symbol of the failure of the past four years – and of the overly optimistic belief of many analysts and writers (I'm as guilty as any) that a permanent and positive change had really come.
Yet while President Barack Obama spoke of democracy and a change in the way the US does business in the Middle East in those heady days, today his administration and the US Congress, Republican and Democrat, are getting back to business as usual, with security and strategic concerns trumping the lip-service paid to democracy and open societies.
Earlier this month Congress approved a spending bill that calls for $1.3 billion in US cash and weapons for Egypt's military to be conditioned on tangible progress towards democracy. But lawmakers also allowed Mr. Obama to waive this requirement if he thinks security or other interests are more important. Yesterday, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration was delighted with this "flexibility."
"We welcome the flexibility that the bill provides to further our strategic relationship with Egypt and our national security interests," Ms. Psaki said. "That said, there's been no policy decision with regard to our assistance program, which remains under review. And our concerns about Egypt's human rights record, which we speak about frequently, that has not changed."
The Obama administration lifted a hold on delivery of Apache attack helicopters to Egypt earlier this year, citing the need to help Egypt and its new President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi fight terrorism. That came as Egypt's human rights record deteriorated and the Egyptian press had its muzzle tightened.
To recap the past year-and-a-half: A coup in Egypt in July 2013 returned power to the military, led by then Gen. Sisi, who won the presidency a year later in an election marked by an atmosphere of intense repression and censorship. Officials from US-funded democracy groups, including the son of Obama's former transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, were tried and convicted – some in absentia – for promoting democracy in the country. The military government massacred more than 800 Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in Aug. 2013. There have been mass death sentences handed out to protesters.
Three Al Jazeera English journalists – a Canadian, an Australian, and an Egyptian – were sentenced to long prison terms on trumped-up terrorism and spying charges. Thousands of political prisoners now rot in Egyptian jails, and a law carrying hefty prison terms for participating in political demonstrations not supported by the government was passed. There have been persistent reports of denial of medical care for prisoners and torture.
It's worth reviewing what Obama had to say in May 2011 about the uprisings that Mr. Bouzizi helped start:
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world -– the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
... Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region. But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles –- principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months: The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region. Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
Those core principles are currently being trampled in Egypt.