Thursday, 20 January 2011

Zalmay Khalilzad thinks US can make a difference

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US official who helped run the US empire in Iraq and Afghanistan, is jumping on the Tunisian bandwagon in the hope of salvaging some gains for the United States. Writing in the Financial Times, he says: "the revolution in Tunisia has opened the door for a renewed western democracy push ... Now they (the United States and Europe) must work with Tunisian liberals, both inside and outside the country – first to prevent chaos, then to ensure fair competition and that Islamists, and current ruling parties, do not outmanoeuvre the moderates. Elections must then follow, although the timing and preparations for the vote must reflect lessons learnt from other recent elections in the region."
    I'm not sure that Zal really gets it. This time the Tunisians have acted without US or European support of any kind and it's not clear that they either want it or need it now. What do the United States and Europe have to do with stopping the Islamists outmanoevring the 'moderates'? Isn't that blatant interference, since 'outmanoevring' is presumably a legitimate part of political rough-and-tumble? Why is he repeating the moderate-Islamist dichotomy, when it isn't relevant to the Tunisian context? Yesterday I saw one of the anti-RCD protesters holding up a placard reading 'No to ministers nominated by the US' - clearly excessive sensitivity but indicative of some residual suspicion. Zal also advocates the same old formula - democracy as long as Arabs elect those who serve our interests. For example: "In countries in which Islamist movements are better organised than liberal ones, the west should focus on developing moderate civil society groups, parties and institutions rather than calling for snap elections." That's exactly the old Bush policy. The difference is that some of the neo-conservatives (Zal was very much in that mould) now notice that the uprising in Tunisia was not in fact the work of Islamists, so maybe it's safe to push for change again elsewhere.
    Brian Whitaker of the Guardian is also promoting the 'demise of the Islamists' theme and saying it punches a hole in the old autocrats' argument that they were the only feasible bulwark against the wild hordes of rabid Islamists. It's certainly remarkable how subdued the Tunisian Islamists have been in the past week, but it's too early to dismiss them completely. The best outcome would be to have the Tunisian Islamists take part in politics in a way that reflects their significance in Tunisian society, and only the  next elections can determine that. All the Islamists I have heard in the past week are singing the same tune as the leftists -- political freedom for all.   It's interesting that none of the political forces excluded by Ben Ali are now calling for the exclusion of the Islamists.



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