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Shifting Sands

By Roy Ivey

Laurence Pope

Emboldened by the recent successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, Arabs throughout the Middle East are demonstrating their desire for freedom from the autocratic yokes they have lived under for centuries.

For Laurence Pope, a retired U.S. Ambassador to Chad, this moment in history represents an opportunity for the United States to build a more sustainable relationship with the Arab world.

As the featured speaker for Angelo State’s E. James Holland-Roy Harrell Jr. Foreign Affairs Speakers Program, Pope said the new Middle East is here to stay and is not driven by Islamic fundamentalists.

“What happened in the streets of Cairo,” he said, “and what has happened in the streets of Tunis are genuine, popular revolutions.  They are very different from what has gone on before in the Arab world in terms of popular demonstrations.  There has been a singular lack of the sort of empty-headed, vaguely fascistic calls of Arab nationalism.”

Pope also noted that the revolts have not been marked by Islamist extremism.

“There has been no ‘we’ll sacrifice for you, oh, insert name of leader here’… like Hafiz Lassa, Nasser, Moammar Gadhafi…,” he said.  “There haven’t been any Islamic slogans, either, like ‘Islam is the solution,’ ‘death to America’ or ‘death to unbelievers.’  From Copt Christians in the streets of Cairo to people from all walks of life, crowds have been of one mind.”

What Pope calls the “Arab spring” of 2011 took him and everyone else by surprise.

“Students of international affairs and politics may want to reflect on the fact that while professors and I can all talk in great detail about why something has happened and analyze the cause,” he said, “there is not a single one of us who can tell you what will happen tomorrow.”
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in early March spread to Libya where amid much more bloodshed, withering fire from Gadhafi’s military beat back the protestors.  Pope said, however, the infectious protests could spread to Yemen and Bahrain and continue the strange twist of history not seen before in the Arab world. 

Protests have since spread to Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria, but those outcomes have not been settled.

“What seems to be happening in Libya, and may happen elsewhere, is that rare phenomenon of a real revolution,” Pope said.  “The Arab word for revolution implies an outburst of anger and rage, and that is really what has happened.  There have been a lot of coups d’état over the years engineered by armies, like when a group of young Egyptian army officers took over the state from the aging and corrupt King Farouk, and the 1969 revolution in Libya led by Gadhafi, again brought about by a group of young army officers.”

American foreign policy over the last generation, especially in its approach to the Middle East and such uprisings, has drawn criticism, but Pope will not join that chorus.

“I am not among those criticizing because I was implicated in Middle East policy for awhile,” he said.  “But if we were guilty of anything, we were guilty of making the best of the hand that we were dealt.  We have nothing to apologize for, or not much.  Hosni Mubarak and Egypt – that relationship was the product of the Camp David accords that brought peace with Israel.  Sustaining our military relationships was part of the price we American taxpayers paid for that peace.  I would argue that was a good bargain for us.”

Pope is not so forgiving about the United States’ approach to Libya, ignoring Gadhafi’s crimes and then quickly getting back to business-as-usual with his government.

“We didn’t sell him any guns, unlike the Europeans,” he said.  “But, sending an ambassador to Gadhafi, who was guilty of bombing two civilian aircraft and the murder of 440 people, was a little distasteful to me.”

What America should do about the recent violence in Libya has sparked debate in Washington.  Pope is apprehensive about intervention, calling it a dangerous and slippery slope.  At the same time, he opposes standing back and doing nothing.

If the climate of revolt spreads to Bahrain, where there have been some protests, Pope is pessimistic about a favorable outcome for its people.
“That would be a direct threat to Saudi Arabia,” he said, “and it is not likely the Saudis would tolerate the kind of bargaining that would satisfy the demands of the protestors.  That could represent a real problem for the U.S. diplomatically, and it is a problem we may see replicated elsewhere in the Persian Gulf where we have a sort of archipelago of arrangements from Oman to Kuwait.  All of those states are autocracies of one kind or another.”

Pope said America should use the current atmosphere as an opportunity to build a more sustainable relationship with the Arab world based on partnerships, and shed the idea of seeing the Middle East as a threat and a target.

“It is very clear that this Arab spring is not a passing shower or spasm of revolt,” he said, “but a profound sea change which may have long-term consequences.  As Mao Tse-Tung said when asked about the French Revolution, ‘it’s too soon to judge.’”

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