The double edged sword of the Arab Spring

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Counter-point: foreign aid has some unfortunate repercussions
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By Kai Yang Shiao
Graphic by Ben Buckley

During the Arab Spring, the ousting of dictators like Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia was heralded around the world as a true taste of democracy in the Arab world. But this landmark event has brought to the surface an ugly, unmentioned truth: the deep resentment of Western countries and symbols made possible by the newly found freedom of expression. It has also often manifested itself in the form of terroristic behaviour. In order to better understand what drives this phenomenon, it is necessary to connect the dots.

Because many of these dictators held pro-Western stances in foreign policy, the United States and other Western countries often rewarded them with military and economic aid. As a result, Egypt became a major beneficiary of this trend. From 1978 to 2002, it was the second largest recipient of military aid from the United States, only surpassed by Israel. In 2010, a year before Mubarak was ousted from power, Egypt received more than one billion U.S. Dollars from the United States. The steady stream of financial support enabled Mubarak to strengthen his armed forces, and therefore maintain his grip on power. In the eyes of the Egyptian people, however, this meant that the United States was implicitly sponsoring an authoritarian regime, suppressing their long awaited desires of living in a democratic political regime.

When members of the Egyptian public were finally able to enjoy freedom of speech after Mubarak’s ouster, they not only did so with wild enthusiasm, but some even translated their anti-American and anti-Western sentiments into destructive and uncivilized behaviour. Many took to the streets in Cairo and proceeded to storm the American embassy and burn its flag.
In Egypt, while symbols of American power were the primary targets, some of these protesters in other countries expanded their scope to indicate their general hatred of the Western world and anything associated with it. In Tunisia, for instance, many proceeded to ransack an American school. In Sudan, these protesters expanded their targets to include the diplomatic missions of other Western countries such as Germany. By practicing guilt by association, they have unjustifiably extended the wrath of their hatred to include attacks on Western symbols or anything remotely associated with the West. Although some of this violence, such as the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was executed by a local branch of al-Qaeda, the aforementioned acts by the wider civilian population also indicates that anti-Western discourse has become a part of these mainstream societies.

Previously, authoritarian governments were able to keep anti-Western sentiment and their often-violent manifestations under control. By successfully doing so, they were also able to maintain a degree of law and order that has since been eroded with the prevalence of mob-like behaviour as seen in the recent embassy attacks. The recent string of incidents lends strong support to the necessity of re-examining the balance between freedom of expression and law and order in these nascent democracies.