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  • Embracing the New Year’s Opportunities for Change
    Sat, 31 December 2011
    Jeffrey Feltman *

    When I served as Political-Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia in the late 1990s, noisy and crowded diplomatic events -- dinners, receptions, national day parties -- were the best place to meet with Tunisians who assumed that President Ben Ali's mukhabarat had bugged all offices. They believed the safety of the noise and crowds at diplomatic events protected candid conversations. But sometimes, even diplomatic receptions didn't work out as planned: one night, my wife and I hosted a reception at our residence in Gammarth, where a large number of human rights and civil society activists showed up, probably to the horror of the few Tunisian government officials who dared attend. At the end of the reception, the mukhabarat arrested a number of guests whom we had gathered in one location, inadvertently facilitating a crackdown.

    Foreign diplomats cynically nicknamed Tunisia, "Syria with a smile": like Syria, the state was managed as if it were a mafia family business, with the denial of basic political rights to its citizens; but, unlike Syria, the smell of jasmine, beach resorts, growth of middle-class home ownership and genuine progress in the role of women soften the edges of harsh political realities.

    Yes, the United States and Tunisia had a long history of cooperative relations, rooted in strong U.S. support for Tunisia's independence. But by the time I served in Tunisia, the once robust bilateral friendship had by and large become paralyzed by the suspicions and fears cultivated by the Ben Ali regime. "Stability," in this case, meant frozen connections and lost potential, and, as Mohammed Bouazizi demonstrated, "stability" turned out to be an illusion.

    Today, Tunisia is a far different place, thanks to the courageous Tunisian people. I had the privilege to visit Tunisia just a week after Ben Ali's departure and to join our Ambassador in openly meeting some of the same activists who had faced arrest there earlier. Even in those early days of the Jasmine Revolution, it was obvious that something fundamental had changed: people were no longer afraid to demand basic rights and economic opportunities. What started in Tunisia has spread elsewhere in the Arab world, with people insisting that their governments respect them and reflect their political and economic aspirations.

    For the United States, which pursues a complex set of foreign policy objectives globally, the transformation of the Arab world poses opportunities and challenges. Many of the overarching goals we pursued a year ago remain the same today: pursuit of genuine Arab-Israeli peace; promotion of global energy stability and freedom of navigation; countering violent extremism and the risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear; promotion of human rights and the development of democracy; and economic growth. But in the Arab world, the context in which we pursue these goals has changed dramatically in the past year.

    The U.S. recognizes that, in a region where public opinion matters more than ever before, we need to increase our efforts to reach out beyond the traditional government and business elites not only to articulate clearly our own goals but to listen to a wide spectrum of views. This includes reaching out to Islamist parties, who now play an important role in the political transformation of many countries in the region. We are less concerned what a political party or organization calls itself than what it does in practice, and we will reach out to those who act according to democratic principles, respect their fellow citizens’ rights, and do not use force or violence to impose their views.

    The United States is aligning our policies and programs with the legitimate aspirations of the region’s new democracies. New emerging leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and, yes, even Syria will undoubtedly be far more attuned to the nuances of public opinion than their authoritarian predecessors. They will face enormous challenges in trying to meet the political and economic demands of their citizens.

    As President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made clear, we are inspired to see people stand up for their rights and for better lives, from Sidi Bouzid, to Alexandria, to Taiz. A diversity of views expressed openly and peacefully is inherently healthy, even if we do not agree in all matters. Over time, a government that respects the rights of all its citizens and rules with their consent will be better placed to serve the needs of its people and also a better partner for the United States.

    The United States is working in many ways to help support the transitions to democracy underway in the Middle East and North Africa. The success of these transitions and of democratic and economic reforms across the region is in the interest of the United States as well as of the region’s people.

    The Arab Spring has shown us that people's legitimate demands for respect and dignity cannot permanently be denied, and it is inevitable that the Syrian people, too, will achieve the end of dictatorship. Until then, we will continue to work with the Arab League, U.N. Security Council partners, and others to find ways to stop Bashar al-Asad's killing machine and to help the Syrian people realize their dream of a united, democratic Syria where the rights of all are respected.

    Across the region, economic success will be vital to political progress, and U.S. private-sector companies will have a positive role to play in supporting growth and helping to create jobs. In Egypt, for example, we are working with our Congress to channel a $1 billion debt swap into job creation, and supporting new partnerships between American and Egyptian educational institutions. The United States is using our assistance funds in new and innovative ways, such as by developing Enterprise Funds to foster private-sector development. In Tunisia, we have been pleased to see major U.S. corporations, including Pfizer, Marriott, and Microsoft, make new investments, hirings, and donations to grow business and aid economic recovery.

    We would like to see the same investment in the success of reforms across the region, and are working to bolster economic investment and growth. However, for that to happen, inclusive, pluralistic and resilient political systems will need to take root. Without such responsive democratic governments, the stability and sustainability businesses seek to assure the viability of investments will be missing and a shadow will be cast over the dignity and pride that has empowered people to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

    Although none of this will be easy, the United States and our international partners will continue to engage and offer our support in the months and years to come. I remain optimistic that 2012 can bring the kind of positive and enduring change that this region has needed and deserved for so long.

    *Jeffrey Feltman is the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

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