After 9/11: American Soft Power and the Arab Spring

by Grace Zhang

On Dec. 19th, 2010, a jobless, hopeless Tunisian col- lege graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of the government’s autocratic rule and lack of economic opportunity. This event ignited outrage from millions of Arabs and sparked copycat acts of self-immolation throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, Bouazizi’s suicide was a wake-up call of sorts. As ordinary Egyptian citizens read more and more about such events and began blogging or using other social media to express their discontent with the government, they broadened their networks, communicated their ideas, and planned mass protests. On Jan. 14, 2011 the Tunisian president of 23 years, Ben Ali, stepped down amid the protests. The Tunisian example set the stage for other Arab countries, now emboldened, to take similar steps to topple their own ruthless dictators.

On Jan. 25, 2011, the first planned pro- tests were held across Egypt, with protestors calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign. After 18 days of continuous mass protest, the protestors achieved their short- term goal of ousting Mubarak, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body of 20 senior officers in the Egyptian military, assumed the role of maintaining law and order until a new president is elected. Since the first popular protests began in Tunisia and Egypt, many other Arab countries have also witnessed mass demonstrations to overthrow their dictators, protest police brutality, demand basic human rights, and support free and fair elections. As a result, this movement has been termed the “Arab Spring.”

The protests feature common techniques of civil resistance in the form of strikes, demonstrations, and rallies. Furthermore, activists and organizers have used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize and raise awareness of the movement; thus, many have noted the importance of the Internet and social networking sites in spreading the revolution.

Ron Nixon of The New York Times espoused an atypical view when he asserted that the U.S. government’s democracy promotion efforts played a key role in training and equipping activists, thereby contributing to the Arab Spring uprisings. He singled out the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House as organizations that were in part responsible for the Arab revolutions. I believe that the Middle East presents one of the greatest challenges to successful U.S. foreign policy. It is an area of continual unrest and one in which we must guard our strategic interests — oil and Israel. Though America has long paid lip service to democratic values abroad, its track record in the Arab world belies such rhetoric. Undoubtedly, the Arab Spring has changed the nature of U.S.-Arab relations and challenged the existing partnerships and “stability” of this region. In the years ahead, it will be necessary for the U.S. government to assess whether it truly values and prioritizes democracy over mere stability, and if so, whether it will continue to fund democracy promotion in the Arab world.

Many remember President George W. Bush’s legacy as a hard power-oriented one, as the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan came to dominate discussions of foreign policy. I explore whether the hard power responses to 9/11 were complemented by a renewed focus on soft power programs in the Middle East as part of a broader strategy to secure America’s strategic interests. By focusing on USAID appropriations to Egypt, the largest Arab recipient of U.S. foreign aid, I determine whether the U.S. increased its democracy promotion efforts in Egypt. Finally, I ascertain the extent to which the U.S.’s support for liberal, democratic institutions in Egypt served as a catalyst to the Arab Spring.