Six months into the Arab Spring things have continued to deteriorate despite the rosy optimism voiced by the Obama administration and countless others since it began.
Libya remains deadlocked in a bloody civil war, even though U.S. forces launched “kinetic military action” three months ago. Syria routinely dispatches tanks and helicopters to crush dissent – more than 1,300 demonstrators have been killed, another 10,000 arrested, and thousands have fled into Turkey. Egypt’s stock market has tanked, as has Tunisia’s. Yemen’s embattled president is undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after a rebel rocket attack.
Though plenty of news reports have covered the pro-democracy movements – and resulting chaos, Arab Spring leaders are still relatively unknown.
Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach is a useful metaphor to distinguish key players who share our values and love for freedom - versus those who despise them.
Here’s a look at the top 6:
Wael Ghonim: Dubbed the “Facebook Freedom Fighter,” he’s the most recognizable face of the Arab Spring. Just 30 years old, the Egyptian used his social media savvy as Google’s regional head of marketing to spur the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Western-friendly, modern and secular, Ghonim symbolizes everything that most Americans hope the Arab Spring will deliver. Accepting the Profile in Courage Award by the JFK Library Foundation, he urged followers to “just say no to torture, injustice, and corruption.”
Riad Seif: A Syrian opposition leader, Seif is an entrepreneur who once held the franchise for Adidas in Damascus. Elected to Parliament in 1990s, his pro-business reforms led him to challenge the ruling Ba’ath Party’s monopoly on power. Efforts to start a second political party landed him in prison eight of the past ten years. Just a week after President Bashar Al-Assad sent in tanks against civilians, Seif was re-arrested.
Major General Ali Moshen Al-Ahmar: The commander of Yemen’s 1st Armored Division, Al-Ahmar defected from President Ali Abdullah Saleh in late March, taking his troops with him – and causing rival tanks to deploy in Sanaa. If Yemen’s fight against Al Qaeda isn’t tough enough, this betrayal makes it tougher. Al-Ahmar’s track record is worrisome – a State Dept. cable from 2005 noted his “questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists,” religiously conservative Salafist leanings, and support for “a more radical Islamic political agenda.”
Hassan Mushaima: A leading dissident in Bahrain, Mushaima returned from exile in London after King Hamad dropped treason charges in a risky concession to the Shi’ite-led protest movement. Mushaima promptly continued to lead the charge for ending the Sunni-led monarchy. Refusing compromise, he told followers “there is no dialogue,” while praising martyrdom. Should Bahrain’s 70% Shi’ite majority take power, the strategically vital island nation would be converted into an Iranian satellite state – followed by ejection of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi: The Muslim Brotherhood’s “spiritual Godfather,” Al-Qaradawi is an 84-year old Egyptian cleric who returned to a hero’s welcome after years of exile in Qatar. In a fiery sermon to hundreds of thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square days after Mubarak’s ouster, Al-Qaradawi condemned Jews, praised Adolph Hitler and demanded the release of militants from prison. In 2001, he signed a fatwah in favor of suicide bombings. He is poised to play a central role in getting out the vote for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Abu Sufian Bin Qumu: A former Libyan Army tank driver in the 1980’s, his arrest on drug and murder charges caused him to flee to Egypt, then Afghanistan and later Sudan where he developed strong ties to Al Qaeda. Captured by Pakistani security forces after fleeing Afghanistan in Dec. 2001, he was turned over to U.S. forces -- and shipped to Guantanamo. Transferred back to Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s government in 2007, he was later freed under an amnesty program. Bin Qumu is now leading and training Libyan opposition forces.
Let’s hope the Obama administration is paying close attention to all of this.
Though voicing support for Arab Spring democracy, Team Obama has hedged its bets and thrown its weight behind whichever side it thinks will win. This may be the easiest strategy in the short term, though it’s likely to usher in disastrous results in the long run.
Mr. Obama has abandoned long-term allied governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, attacked Libya (which hadn’t posed a direct threat to Americans for many years), while practically ignoring Syria’s ruthless crackdown on protesto even though Syria is our long-term enemy. Since our president now seems content to let the chips fall where they may in emerging governments -- we shouldn’t be surprised when anti-U.S., hostile regimes become the norm throughout the Arab world.
Bottom line: it's not good and most certainly is bad and ugly.
J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C.-area think tanks and a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. For more info visit www.jdgordoncommunications.com.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.