The Arab Spring of 2011 put Middle Eastern despotic governments on the defensive, on the run or, in Moammar Gadhafi’s case, in the grave. As the year came to a close, trouble on the streets of Cairo served as a reminder that democratic movements must keep moving lest nations revert to old, comfortable ways of repression.
The central figure in the mid-December incident has been tagged with an unusual name — “the girl in the blue bra.” A woman was protesting the military sinister influence over Egypt’s government in the months since the departure of longtime leader Hosni Mubarek. Video captures a scene as a woman, veiled and covered in a black abaya, is seized by soldiers on the streets where months earlier thousands had decried the Mubarek regime. Soldiers treat the woman roughly, so much so that her clothing is wrenched from her, exposing her naked torso covered only by a blue bra.
The responding outcry in Egypt and around the world has been loud. One Egyptian activist summed up sentiment of the protesters by tweeting, “The blue bra is unforgettable and we all became ‘the blue bra’ girl one way or another.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton protested, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.”
The protesters have a large advantage over their East European counterparts who 20 years ago took on the Iron Curtain. Mobile communications and social media have broken down barriers to mass gatherings that would have been impossible during the Cold War. The plight of the girl in the blue bra reverberated around the world and once more stirred Egyptians to take to the streets.
The downside is that few Middle Eastern regimes have gone quietly into the night. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites 20 years ago appears far more orderly than the chaos seen in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere where despots have resisted with force. Since March, Syria’s government has killed 5,000 dissenters. And even when the powerful fall, vigilance is required to prevent the rising of new autocrats.
To see the emerging democratic impulses of the Arab Spring continue into 2012 will require patient and strategic diplomacy from nations with a stake in seeking the decline of Middle Eastern dictatorships and the rise of democracy. For the United States and other nations outside the region, a careful balance must be struck. Support those calling for change. Decry those oppressing the protesters. Guard against the creeping influence of radical jihadists. Accomplish all of the above with a light touch instead of a heavy hand.
The exit of U.S. troops from Iraq last month is a reminder of the wrong approach. The Bush administration’s neocons expected democracy would flow from the barrel of a gun used in a pre-emptive invasion. America must be seen on the Arab street as a friend of democracy and not as a silent accomplice to the oil-soaked tyrants who have quashed any dissent.
Does this strategy carry risks, especially if Middle Eastern democracies elect Islamists who would repress a nation? Yes, but as Shadi Hamid of The Brookings Institution advises, the United States and its allies in the West “build a higher tolerance for instability, particularly as the Arab [S]pring enters into its long, uncertain middle stage. Rather than fearing or avoiding it, the United States should take instability as a given and formulate more creative policies to anticipate, manage, and get around it.”