Is there Room for “Bread, Dignity, and Freedom” in U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Arab World?

Over the last several decades, the Arab world’s strategic utility to the U.S. remains a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. policy toward the Arab region has been guided by a set of geostrategic priorities that have privileged authoritarian regimes over Arab citizen aspirations for democracy and economic dignity. Unfortunately, the normalized justifications for these policies continue to reinforce existing essentialist, orientalist, and racialized depictions of Arabs and Muslims as extremists and lacking the civilized norms that purportedly emerged only in Western civilizations. Keeping volatile Arabs under lock and key ensures long-term regional stability.

Indeed, the U.S. security prerogative as it pertains to the Arab world is one that seeks to maintain regional stability, ensure Islamists do not seize power and terrorism does not spiral out of control, secure oil fields (and the supply of oil to global markets), and protect close allies like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Thus, U.S. ties to existing Arab regimes, first and foremost, guarantee the strategic priority linked to regional stability.

In 2011, citizens across Arab states took to the streets to demand more representative governments, social justice, and economic reforms. Demands for “bread, dignity, and freedom” were heard across cities in the region, eventually labeled as the “Arab Spring.” In Egypt and Tunisia, protest movements toppled dictators who had ruled for decades; authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the region were rattled as never before. The Arab Spring captured imaginations around the world and challenged long-held assumptions about the region’s political culture.

A little over a decade after the initial uprisings, however, democratic aspirations are withering away. Not only have authoritarian leaders further consolidated their rule, but even more important, Arab attitudes toward democracy and political rights have negatively shifted. At the time of the Arab Spring, most citizens across the region believed that democracy was the best political system, according to the Arab Barometer survey, a central resource for public opinion research of Arab citizens. This decline in support for democracy did not result from a shift in democratic political orientations, but rather dire economic circumstances have deflated citizen support for democracy.

Tunisia offers perhaps the most illustrative example of how persistent economic hardship has deflated support for democracy. During the past decade, the country had often been held up as democracy’s greatest hope in the Arab region. Analysts suggested that — of all the countries in the region — Tunisia had the best basis for success: It possesses an ethnically homogenous, relatively well-educated population, a relatively large middle class, and its armed forces were relatively apolitical.

Yet, Tunisia’s democratic transition failed to bring tangible economic gains and solutions to its people. Today, the country’s economy is in worse condition than it was before the Arab Spring; in 2011, per capita income in Tunisia stood at $4,265; by 2020, it had fallen to $3,320. Unsurprisingly, people’s economic frustrations have grown. Only a few months after the departure of former President Ben Ali, 27% of Tunisians surveyed by the Arab Barometer believed their economy was in good or very good shape; in 2018-19, that figure fell to just 7%.

Citizens in Tunisia blame “democracy” for this dismal condition. In 2011, when asked if democratic regimes are indecisive and full of problems, only 19% of Tunisians agreed; by 2018, that figure was 51%. In 2011, 17% of Tunisian respondents agreed with the statement, “In democratic systems, economic performance is weak.” By 2018, that proportion had more than doubled, to 39%. This trend was especially pronounced among Tunisians between ages 18 and 29, many of whom came of age during the democratic transition. In 2011, just 21% associated democracy with weak economic performance; by 2018, that figure was 43%. It is not hard to see why: According to Tunisian economist Mongi Boughzala, “The share of [Tunisian] unemployed people who are younger than 35 years old is 85%. And the higher the level of education attainment, the higher the rate of unemployment: 40% of the unemployed have university degrees.”…

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