United States support for global social justice? Foreign intervention and Realpolitik in Egypt's Arab Spring.

AuthorCollins, Victoria E.

On rare occasions, and under certain conditions, segments of the population respond to the repressive and violent conditions imposed on them by a state's leader by seeking social justice in a variety of ways--from broad social movements to revolutions. The "Arab Spring" that began in December 2010 is an example of such uprisings. The authors suggest that political factors, in particular the need of states to maintain legitimacy and pursue their interests, affect the framing, labeling, and repression of those involved in ending state violence. In this context, the reaction of foreign states to social unrest is more often than not predicated on their geopolitical interests than on their stated support for social justice, democracy, humanitarian concerns, or human rights. By drawing on theories of power, discourse, and legitimacy, the authors analyze the contradictory responses of the United States to the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt.

Keywords: Realpolitik, Arab Spring, uprisings, state crime, Obama administration


STATE CRIME, (1) STATE REPRESSION, AND VIOLENCE AGAINST CITIZENS regretfully are regular occurrences in history. On rare occasions, and under certain circumstances, segments of the population respond to the repressive and violent conditions imposed by a state's leader by mobilizing to achieve social justice. (2) The forms of these uprisings may range from broad social movements to revolutions. Such has been the case in what is now termed the "Arab Spring," which began in December 2010. However, responses to state violence and repression are not always hailed as noble efforts but rather are sometimes called acts of terrorism, as is the case with the struggles of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Political factors affect the framing of these events, including the need for states to maintain legitimacy, preserve their interests, and counter conditions of unrest.

When geopolitically important states are involved, many within the Western world hail emerging social movements as efforts to democratize and gain human rights and freedom (Schwedler, Stacher, and Yadou 2011). This framing and subsequent discourse is what we typically hear in political, media, and scholarly accounts of such events. Typically ignored, however, are the external interventions that have supported, covertly and overtly, the conditions of repression and violence. The political alliances and stated support for or against existing social movements are more often than not predicated on the geopolitical interests of Western states rather than on the touted dogmas of social justice, democracy, humanitarian concerns, or human rights, which are often only invoked as efforts to legitimize state actions (see, for example, the US precursor to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq).

Drawing on theories of power, discourse, and legitimacy, in this article we analyze the response of the United States to the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and the subsequent removal of President Mubarak from office. We attempt to unveil the contradictions between the United States' support of the movement and its backing of repressive regimes. States must legitimize their actions and positions, for example through the adoption of certain discourses (i.e., condemning the regime responsible for violently repressing uprisings), while simultaneously pursuing interests and policies that strategically benefit them politically and economically. In the case at hand, the Obama administration not only demonstrates hypocrisy, but through the pursuit of its own self-interest, it is also complicit in the facilitation of Egyptian state violence. We first briefly review the extant literature and theoretical perspectives guiding our research and then discuss the onset of the Arab Spring movement and the subsequent public reactions of President Barack Obama and his administration.

Literature Review

Of the many journalistic and nongovernmental reports on the Arab Spring (Ahram Online 2011a, 2011b, 2012; Byman 2011a, 2011b; Fick and ElBoweti 2013; Mustafa 2011), most are typically historical, descriptive, and atheoretical. Considerable attention has been paid to the repression, abuse, and torture committed against the citizenry of these states, especially as it relates to political and social activism (El-Mahdi and Marfleet 2009; Marfleet 2012; Tripp 2012), but criminological research has generally not analyzed the development of the Arab Spring or the events after its beginning in 2010. With the exception of Friedrichs (2013), the literature is informed by, or situated within, disciplines other than criminology, such as terrorism and security studies (Buehler 2013; Jones 2012; Lilli 2011), Middle East studies (Bishara 2011; Marfleet 2012; Tripp 2012), political science (Kamrava 2012; Roy 2012; Schraeder 2012; Yom and Gause 2012), and sociology (Fuchs 2012; Handy 2012). The existing literature focuses on the sociopolitical and historical development and prerevolutionary social organization of the uprisings in the different states (Gerbaudo 2012); the threats to stability in the region (Achcar 2013; Nouiehed and Warren 2012; Roy 2012; Stephan and Linz 2013; Tessler, Jamal, and Robbins 2012; Tripp 2012); the relation of the uprisings to terrorism (Bishara 2011; Gartenstein-Ross and Vassefi 2012; Jones 2012; Lilli 2011), specifically al Qaeda and Islamist extremism (Gartenstein-Ross and Vassefi 2012); the role of the media and its contribution to the organization of social movements in the region (Amar 2011; Fuchs 2012; Howard and Hussain 2013; Mabrouk 2009; Rizk and Attalah 2011); electoral violence and political oppression (Miller et al. 2012); and the role of international criminal justice (Abou-El-Fadl 2012; Schraeder 2012; Triffterer 2011).

Terrorism studies present two competing arguments: (1) The uprisings have created significant instability in the Middle East, providing fertile conditions for terrorism, specifically radicalism in the form of Islamist extremism (Bishara 2011; Buehler 2013); and, conversely, (2) The Arab uprisings have created a discourse of Middle Eastern democracy that cannot be reconciled with that of al Qaeda Islamic fundamentalism propagated by the West (Lilli 2011; McCants 2011), which has led to the characterization of the region as unreceptive to progress and/or democracy (Bishara 2011). Studies of the social movements that emerged in the region have also focused on the organizational fragility of the movement as it relates to political transition (Gerbaudo 2012), as well as the unique role of social media as a tool for organization, especially for young people (Fuchs 2012; Howard and Hussain 2013). Many of these studies highlight the role of technology, the Internet, and social networking sites in mobilizing the citizenry of Arab countries, particularly youth, to participate in mass demonstrations (Amar 2011; Friedrichs 2013; Howard and Hussain 2013; Rizk and Attalah 2011), while also drawing international attention (Friedrichs 2013).

Other research that addresses the Arab Spring uprisings examines the political, economic, and social repression that are characteristic of the region's autocratic regimes (Brynen 2012; Buehler 2013; Council on Foreign Relations 2011; El-Mahdi and Marfleet 2009; Gelvin 2012; Miller et al. 2012; Nouiehed and Warren 2012; Prashad 2011; Tripp 2012). For example, Nouiehed and Warren (2012) emphasize the policies of self-protection common to many of these regimes that have ensured the wealth and prosperity of the political elite while simultaneously leaving large sectors of the population in extreme poverty. Buehler (2013) has examined how the manipulation of formal institutions, including elections, by the autocrats insures political control and undermines the legitimacy of the regime. These factors have contributed significantly to the social, political, and economic discontent and to the subsequent movements in the Middle East (Haddad, Bsheer, and Abu-Rish 2012).

As Middle East scholars have noted, the West in particular has intervened in the states later involved in the Arab Spring (Bishara 2011; El-Mahdi and Marfleet 2009; Schwedler, Stacher, and Yadou 2011), often to protect the political and economic interests of the power elite (Mew 2013). Several scholars outside the criminological field have noted the role of the West in lending economic and political support to repressive regimes in North Africa, which has contributed to the political, social, and economic circumstances prompting the social uprising (El-Mahdi and Marfleet 2009; Haddad et al. 2012; Keenan 2012; Marfleet 2012; Mew 2013; Shahshahani and Mullin 2012). For example, Keenan (2012) argues that a main reason the Algerian government has retained relative control over the situation in its country, when other countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have not, is directly related to its foreign policy.

In their analysis of the revolution in Tunisia, Shahshahani and Mullin (2012) examine the advancement of Western-backed democratization and the potential for further instability as elites, state actors, and their backers in the West strive to reestablish stability and order, while other groups such as laborers, youth, and religious activists advocate for a more radical structural change. Furthermore, Bishara (2011) draws attention to Western interests--oil, the restraint of radical Islam, the advancement of neoliberal economic policies, and the protection of Israel--as factors that strongly influence leaders in the Arab world. This is especially true since "historically, those who dared oppose Washington's dictates paid heavily for it," either directly or by proxy (ibid., 158). From Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser to Iraq's Saddam Hussein through Yasser Arafat in Palestine, all were defeated, sanctioned, or isolated.

Likewise, Schwedler, Stacher, and Yadou (2011) argue that promotion of freedom by the United States is the official line of...

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