Doused in paint thinner, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Tunisia on Dec. 17, sparking a string of protests throughout northern Africa. The 20-year old college graduate, angry after the government confiscated his source of income- a fruit cart- and beat him, has been credited as the beginning of a series of uprisings in North Africa.
Protests have now spread to Egypt and Libya, as well as Morocco and Algeria. Citizens have taken to the streets in protest of high food prices, and even higher unemployment rates, and general discontent with, in many cases, decades of inefficient dictatorial regimes.
With protests mounting from country to country, igniting passion for reform in nations’ citizens, the uprisings of North Africa may be the 21st century’s Berlin Wall. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recognizes the potential effect the uprisings could have on the world order, but says, “The outcome of this turmoil remains unclear.”
Resource-rich North Africa has become a strategic battlefield among the US, Europe, China and Russia. The US and Europe, united under NATO, seemed to prevail under two NATO initiatives: the Mediterranean Dialogue and a military alliance with the 53 countries of the African Union (AU).
Member nations of the AU and the Mediterranean Dialogue are believed to benefit from the initiatives under the broad public goals of countering security threats against Africa and using NATO as a model for the African Standby Force. But NATO members will receive more concrete benefits, such as limiting Russian and Chinese expansion and blocking arms suppliers of non-NATO members.
The interests of NATO forge onward, devoid of serious regard to its public objectives. Rasmussen has outlined his concerns with the uprisings in terms of its impact upon the Middle East peace process and a possible increase of illegal immigration to Europe, validating NATO-centric concerns to the world under a “we don’t interfere in domestic politics” stance. Forget about partnerships, dialogues, and goals.
This lack of response from NATO is only amplified by a muted response from the US, with Europe following suit. Though Obama exercised caution in denouncing violence against peaceful protesters in Libya out of fear that the Gadhafi regime would target American nationals in Libya, Washington was also slow to react to protests in Egypt earlier in February.
Only after receiving strong criticism in the media did Obama denounce Mubarak, a long-time ally to the US, calling for transition “now.” Washington has propped up dictatorial regimes, such as that of Mubarak, for decades, benefiting from such stable relationships with dictators. In Egypt, which has been known to hold and torture terrorist suspects for the US, there has been a “protect us in our war and we will forgive your human rights abuses” policy. It seems US policy is in support of stable dictators, rather than fledgling democracies. Why would the US and NATO, which so avidly promote democracy, not have supported it in North Africa?
“The US and allies pull out no stops to prevent democracy because of major energy resources,” says Noam Chomsky, a well-respected American intellectual. In fact, as the protests spread to Libya, the major concern in the US was rising gas prices, not Gadhafi dropping bombs on his own citizens and executing Libyan soldiers who refused to kill their compatriots. Oil prices, which could reach $220 per barrel if Libya and Algeria, both dealing with internal protests, were to cut off oil supplies, could slow down economic recovery.
Both NATO and the US have shrouded selfish intentions behind national sovereignty, but after decades of support for allied dictators and more recent initiatives for a firm grasp on African affairs, perhaps it is not an honest stance to take. And if the US and NATO do not take a stance, we should hope they set aside potential gains and focus on allowing the internal movements of Africa choose the next step.
Recently, NATO has urged all parties to stop violence and ensure peaceful transition to democracy. A little less recently, Mubarak urged protestors for ‘orderly transitions’ that only served to postpone change. While we can hope and urge for peaceful transitions, we must remember that NATO is not just a collection of military power, but also a political entity with a widely stated goal to “promote democratic values to build trust and prevent conflict in the long-run.” To prevent conflict in the long run, might it be in the best interests of North Africa to allow reform?
NATO cannot both call for stability and advocate reform. With a hefty aim to be the world guarantor of security by 2020, NATO will need to reconsider its newest partnerships, beyond the interest of its allies, and start guaranteeing actual security.
Sarah Redohl is studying Journalism at the University of Missouri, and interning at E!Sharp magazine.
Read related articles from atlantic-community.org members:
- Donatella Scatamacchia: How NATO Can Help in the Maghreb
- Gillian Kennedy: Egypt's Revolution is Europe's Reawakening
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can find more information about the competition here.