What Americans Have to Learn from the Arab Spring

The “Arab Spring,” wherein the peoples of the Arab world rose up and are still now rising up against dictators, provides us all with a poignant learning moment, that is, if we are paying attention.

I was teaching two different sections of critical thinking along with three other college courses when the revolt in Tunisia and then Egypt took place. At the time we were covering the basics of critical and creative thinking including the key concept of “logical consistency.” Following the law of “non-contradiction,” logical consistency is a concept that offers up the simple idea that if someone says X and not-X at the same time, they’re either confused or trying to deceive you. For instance, if a democratic society is one in which people are guaranteed a reasonable measure of free speech (everything short of yelling fire in a crowded theater), then it would be logically contradictory to speak of a democratic society in which people are not guaranteed such a right.

Now this might be a fairly simple idea, but the acceptance of outright logical contradictions plagues much of our thinking. For when informed by what Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci called the “commonsense” of the dominant culture, our thinking lacks coherence and often works against our own interests. As the black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins explains it, dominant groups package their ideological commitments, which uphold “their right to rule,” as “a popular system of ‘commonsense’ ideas.”[1]

For instance, dominant political and cultural discourse maintain that single payer healthcare is evil because it is an example of a “socialist” program—that is, a program wherein the public is taxed to fund a social program that benefits the majority but not necessarily each person of a society. And socialism, we are told, is bad. Yet, the very same discourse simultaneously maintains that social spending on militarism, law enforcement, and fire fighters is good. But these programs are no less “socialist” than single payer healthcare. So to say that socialism and socialist programs are evil, but that some socialist programs are good is to talk out of, well let’s just say both sides of your mouth! In the mean time, more than 44,000 people die of inadequate healthcare each year in the U.S.[2]

The Egyptian Revolution provided an incredible opportunity to explore and enact critical thinking in the classroom. It specifically provided an opportunity to test the logical consistency of our leaders’ assertions about our nation’s role on the global stage. In his December 10, 2009 Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech, Obama said: “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” Such a statement stands in stark contrast to Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King’s assertion, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, that the U.S. was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and that it had become, along with other Western nations, “arch anti-revolutionaries,” subverting people’s movements around the globe. Clearly these two men’s ideas about the U.S. are not compatible. So I asked my students to explore these statements in the context of the real-time conflicts developing before our eyes. Whose ideas made the most sense or were at least coherent given the known facts around the “Arab Spring”?

Clearly, Egypt was a close friend of ours. The U.S. had provided more than $1 billion dollars of financial aid to Egypt since 1979. In fact, a May 19, 2009 diplomatic cable indicated that Mubarak was “encouraged” by the Obama administration’s interaction with his government, and that he was anxious to demonstrate Egypt remained the central US ally in the region. If the Egyptian government was one of our closest friends—and does one really give more than $1 billion dollars to anyone other than close friends!—then it must, according to Obama, protect the rights of their citizens. Yet the facts indicated otherwise.

The Egyptian government, led by the U.S. backed dictator, Mubarak, frequently violated many of its people’s basic human rights. According to a January 12, 2009 diplomatic cable, made available by WikiLeaks, the U.S. was well aware of Egypt’s State of Emergency law and its consequences for the people. The cable reported of the law that it had been “in effect almost continuously since 1967,” and granted the government “broad powers to arrest individuals without charge and to detain them indefinitely.” The cable also explained that the regime had used the Emergency Law to target political opponents including bloggers and labor demonstrators. In fact, a January 15, 2009 diplomatic cable by U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey—again, made available by WikiLeaks—indicates that police brutality was, at the time, “routine and pervasive,” and that “police using force to extract confessions from criminals [is] a daily event.” Ambassador Scobey also wrote that there were indications that the government was engaged in torture and the “sexual molestation” of at least one female democracy activist.[3]

Fed up with pervasive and systematic repression, several morally courageous Egyptians resolved themselves to confront their illegitimate government despite the seemingly impossible odds of affecting change. One young Egyptian woman named Asmaa Mahfouz played a particularly key role in inspiring the 18-day uprising that led to the collapse of the Mubarak régime. A member of the pro-democracy group, the April 6 Youth Movement, Mahfouz had been promoting action against government abuses, distributing leaflets and speaking to others about the need to take action. In response to four Egyptians having set themselves on fire in protest of government abuses, Mahfouz attempted to organize a spontaneous protest in Tahrir Square. Only a handful of people participated, and security forces quickly ended the action. In response, Mahfouz made a short video in which she called for her fellow citizens to rise up and take to Tahrir Square on January 25. Mahfouz disseminated the video via “Facebook,” the social networking website, not at all aware or capable of knowing what her actions would help inspire.[4]

In the January 18th video Mahfouz urges her fellow citizens to join her in Tahrir Square on January 25 in standing up against the security forces terrorizing the people, and demand their people’s “fundamental human rights.” She goes on to denounce the pessimism and fatalism plaguing the people:

Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, ‘You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.’ Your presence with us will make a difference, a big difference. Talk to your neighbors, your colleagues, friends and family, and tell them to come. They don’t have to come to Tahrir Square. Just go down anywhere and say it, that we are free human beings. Sitting at home and just following us on news or Facebook leads to our humiliation, leads to my own humiliation….If you stay at home, then you deserve all that is being done, and you will be guilty before your nation and your people. And you’ll be responsible for what happens to us on the streets while you sit at home.

Mafhouz’s passionate and freedom-affirming, life-affirming call for action was reminiscent of rousing fictitious speeches in films like Brave Heart and V for Vendetta. Yet her clarion was more profound not only because it was not cinematic fiction, but also because it transcended violence. Mahfouz did not make a call to arms; she made a call to love, dignity, and solidarity, against the prominence of a freedom-disdaining status-quo affirming fatalism.

Never say there’s no hope. Hope disappears only when you say there’s none. So long as you come down with us, there will be hope. Don’t be afraid of the government….Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights. [5]

One day before the scheduled protest, Mahfouz posted another video in which she urged her fellow citizens on, and told of how children “no older than 14” and elders “in their sixties and seventies” helped promote the action. [6] The following day, as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, reportedhundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square…to call for the ouster of President Mubarak and an end to his regime. The turnout was unprecedented….”[7] So, too, was the government’s unbridled violence and outright repression of basic human rights. Over several days Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime unleashed official and planned-clothes security forces who worked to beat the vastly nonviolent popular uprising into defeat. Security forces utilized a variety of weaponry, from live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, to thugs armed with clubs riding camels through crowds of protestors. In one of the more iconic photos of the revolution, an Egyptian protestor is shown holding up a “Made in USA” tear gas canister that was being used against the crowd.[8] In the process several were killed, a great many were injured, and untold numbers arrested. Meanwhile, the government also sought to shut off the national and international media’s spotlight on its abuses. Government supporters perpetrated some 100 attacks on international and national journalists, assaulting and or detaining members of CNN, CBS, ABC, and other news outlets and bloggs.[9]

Despite his best efforts to retain power in the face of popular opposition, Mubarak finally stepped down February 12, 2011. What will happen now that Mubarak has stepped down is to be determined. Whatever may happen, this is much is clear: the U.S. government had, until the popular uprising, financially and diplomatically supported Mubarak’s human rights’ abusing government for decades.

The fact that the U.S. backed Egyptian government did not respect the rights of its people leads to one of the following conclusions: 1) the Mubarak regime was not a close friend and that our government knowingly supported a brutal dictator; or 2) that it is simply untrue that all of our closest allies respect the rights of their people. Even if it were the case, on the most charitable interpretation, that Obama was not referring to Mubarak in his peace prize speech, the fact of our knowingly financing a government that systematically oppresses its people does not cohere with public proclamations that U.S. foreign policy is motivated by the moral impetus to spread democracy and protect human rights. In either case, basic critical thinking indicates that we are either being lied to, or our leaders need a lesson in the law of noncontradiction.

Soon the people of the tiny Persian Gulf nation Bahrain, too, awoke with the zeal to enact and experience freedom, whatever the consequences. Like Egypt had been, Bahrain is ruled by a dictatorial, U.S. backed regime, the Khalifa family. According to the New York Times, the Shiite majority in Bahrain have long complained of their being marginalized and discriminated against by the Sunni royal family. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is said to hire foreigners to take up law enforcement so as to prevent Shiite citizens from carrying weapons or wearing police uniforms. Moreover, despite overwhelming support for a 2001 national charter meant to produce key democratic reform, in 2002, “the king imposed a Constitution by decree that Shiite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the Parliament.”[10] The U.S. has long supported Bahrain’s monarchy despite its aversion to democracy and human rights. What matters most, it seems, is that the oil flows. For Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is used to maintain “the continued flow of oil to the West from the Persian Gulf and to protect the interests of the United States in a 20-nation area that includes vital waterways like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. The base is home to 2,300 military personnel, most of them in the Navy.”[11] In 2010, the Obama administration increased security assistance to Bahrain from $5.3 million to $20.8, security assistance that directly went to equip the police and military forces that have attacked protestors.[12] Moreover, a June 2011 State Department arms export report indicates that the Obama administration approved $200 million in military sales to Bahrain[13] again material means which are presently being used to viciously subvert reform, basic human rights, and, quite specifically, rob many Bahrainis of both their dignity and right to life.

Young Bahrain organizers were inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, and called for action on February 14, 2011. When demonstrators attempted to gather, police overwhelmed them with tear gas. Some were killed. One young man was “shot in the back by the police. A day later, another young man, a mourner, also was killed, shot in the back.” Four days later, on February 17, the people responded to these injustices and their desire for freedom by pouring into Pearl Square, creating an encampment. “Tens of thousands of people had poured into the square during the day, setting up tents, giving rousing speeches and pressing their demands for a constitutional democracy.” The Times reported that as the day progressed, the people created a living-room like atmosphere wherein they communed with one another, sipping tea and watching BBC Arabic, which was being projected on a monument in the square. “By 11 p.m. Wednesday, the square had started to quiet down. Young men sat smoking water pipes, while young children slept on blankets or in tents.”

This calm was soon interrupted by the savagery of U.S. financed Bahrain security forces. At 2:45am Thursday, several dozens of police vehicles arrived. “Without warning, hundreds of heavily armed riot police officers rushed into Pearl Square…, firing shotguns, tear gas and concussion grenades at the thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping there as part of a widening protest against the nation’s absolute monarchy….Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing as riot police ringed the square.” The attack resulted in the deaths of at least five people, some killed in their sleep, and the injury of at least 200 others who had been hit in the face and chest with shotgun pellets. Doctors reported that paramedics aiding the injured were attacked by police forces. When the people again took to the square on Saturday, February 19, they were once more met with tear gas and rubber bullets.[14] But the people pushed on in waves until they once again took the square. [15]

Soon after the February 19 triumph, Bahrain’s authoritarian regime imposed martial law and largely stamped out the pro-democracy movement. In a June 9 interview from Bahrain’s capital, Manama, Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, told Democracy Now that the soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain continue to arrest protesters and the doctors treating those injured during pro-democracy demonstrations.[16] Affirming these observations, Amnesty International elaborated on the circumstances in a June 13, 2011 email to supporters, noting that it found evidence that not only had “medical workers in Bahrain were attacked and prevented from treating injured protestors,” those being detained had “been tortured while they await trial….forced detainees to stand for long periods, deprived them of sleep, beat them with rubber hoses and wooden boards containing nails, and made them sign papers while blindfolded.” In total, 48 healthcare workers are being put on trial before a closed-door military court.

On June 7, 2011, President Obama hosted the kingdom’s crown prince, Salman bin Isa al-Khalifa. And on June 8, secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with key her Bahraini counterpart, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa. Just prior to the meeting, Bahrain had simultaneously lifted martial law, assaulted peaceful pro-democracy protestors in 20 villages, and charged “dozens of Bahraini medical officials who treated anti-government protesters were charged with attempting to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy.” [17] Given that it had given the unconstitutional order to open a new war front in Libya, without congressional authorization, for committing similar abuses, how would the U.S. government responded to its friend’s systematic, egregious human rights abuses? In a press conference, Clinton stated that Bahrain is an important partner, and that she and the Obama administration “are supportive of a national dialogue and the kinds of important work that the Crown Prince has been doing in his nation, and we look forward to it continuing.”[18]

Meanwhile, U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia has not only sent in forces to put down the Bahrain revolt, it has also made it clear democratic practices such as peaceful public assembly will not be tolerated. In response to protests by the Shiite minority, the state’s interior ministry released a statement reiterating: “The kingdom’s regulations totally ban all sorts of demonstrations, marches, sit-ins,” and that security forces would be implemented to maintain order.[19] The government, an absolute monarchy, claims that demonstrations violate Islamic law and the kingdom’s traditions. [20]

The ethical inconsistency is obvious: while the Obama administration and varied allies from both parties has endorsed or entertained the thought of military intervention against regimes systematically violating human-rights, including Libya and, if Sen. Lindsay Graham gets his way, Syria,[21] it is virtually silent about the regimes whom it has literally supplied much of the means to systematically oppress their people. Such a double standard implies a rather inescapable conclusion: protecting Human Rights is incidental to varied geo-political objectives which, apparently, are not centrally derived from concerns about human rights.

Taken together, such events and disclosures give the American people the opportunity to contemplate the sincerity of claims that U.S. foreign policy is motivated to protect human rights and democratic values. It seems abundantly clear that before we can take seriously claims that wars such as those fought in Libya are motivated by respect for human rights and various humanitarian interests, our government must rectify two practices that render such concerns logically absurd.  If our government is serious about human rights abuses in other nations, then it will stop directly undermining precisely this stated objective by 1) ending financial and political support for authoritarian regimes that frequently violate the rights of their people; and 2) stop supplying authoritarian regimes with “security” and military weaponry. In sum, our government’s proclamations of the desire to protect human rights, democracy, and innocent life will be rendered paradoxically absurd until we bring an end to the practice of undermining all three by routinely and persistently financing regimes that systematically oppress their people.

Jeff Nall teaches philosophy and gender studies at two separate Florida institutions. He is a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies: Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality, at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, and holds both a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from FAU and a Master of Liberal Studies from Rollins College.


[1] Collins, Patricia Hill. 2009. Black Feminist Thought., p.302-303.

[2] American Journal of Public Health. December 2009. “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults”. http://pnhp.org/excessdeaths/health-insurance-and-mortality-in-US-adults.pdf Vol 99, No.12

State-by-state http://www.pnhp.org/excessdeaths/excess-deaths-state-by-state.pdf

[3] The Guardian. 28 Jauary 2011. “US reported ‘routine’ police brutality in Egypt, WikiLeaks cables show.”  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/28/egypt-police-brutality-torture-wikileaks

[4] Asharq al-Awsat (Fadl, Essam). 7 February 2011. “A talk with Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz.” http://aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=3&id=24073; http://aawsat.com/english/print.asp?artid=id24073

[5] Democracy Now. 5 February 2011. “Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime.” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/5/uprising_in_egypt_a_two_hour

[6] Democracy Now. 5 February 2011. “Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime.” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/5/uprising_in_egypt_a_two_hour

[7] Democracy Now. 5 February 2011. “Uprising in Egypt: A Two-Hour Special on the Revolt Against the U.S.-Backed Mubarak Regime.” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/5/uprising_in_egypt_a_two_hour

[8] Egyptian protester holds a “Made in USA” tear gas canister, Jan. 28. http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/31/made_in_the_usa_tear_gas

[9] Associated Press. 3 February 2011. “Journalists get attacked, arrested in Egypt” ; http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_thecutline/20110203/ts_yblog_thecutline/journalists-get-attacked-arrested-in-egypt

[10] New York Times, 17 February 2011, “Bahrain Police Crack Down; Five Dead and Hundreds Hurt,” http://www.truth-out.org/bahrain-police-crack-down-five-dead-and-hundreds-hurt67830

[11] New York Times, 17 February 2011, “Bahrain Police Crack Down; Five Dead and Hundreds Hurt,” http://www.truth-out.org/bahrain-police-crack-down-five-dead-and-hundreds-hurt67830)

[12] New York Times, 19 February 2011, “Protesters Take Bahrain Square as Forces Leave,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/world/middleeast/20protests.html?pagewanted=1&ref=world&src=me

[13] Democracy Now 13 June 2011. “Obama Administration Approved $200M in Military Sales to Bahrain in Run-Up to Violent Crackdown.” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/13/headlines#3 ; Morning Star. 12 June 2011. “US approved £125m of arms to Bahrain.” http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/content/view/full/105771

[14] New York Times, 19 February 2011, “Protesters Take Bahrain Square as Forces Leave,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/world/middleeast/20protests.html?pagewanted=1&ref=world&src=me

[15] New York Times, 19 February 2011, “Protesters Take Bahrain Square as Forces Leave,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/20/world/middleeast/20protests.html?pagewanted=1&ref=world&src=me

[16] Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/9/obama_hides_meeting_with_top_bahraini

[17] Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/9/obama_hides_meeting_with_top_bahraini

[18] Democracy Now. 9 June 2011. “Obama Hides Meeting with Top Bahraini Leader—And Mutes Criticism of Ongoing Crackdown” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/6/9/obama_hides_meeting_with_top_bahraini

[19] Reuters, 5 March 2011. “Saudi Arabia says won’t tolerate protests.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/05/us-saudi-protests-idUSTRE72419N20110305

[20] Reuters, 5 March 2011. “Saudi Arabia says won’t tolerate protests.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/05/us-saudi-protests-idUSTRE72419N20110305

[21] The Hill (Ben Geman). 12 June 2011 “Sen. Graham: Military intervention in Syria should be ‘on the table’” http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/165943-graham-military-intervention-in-syria-should-be-on-the-table