Middle East & Africa: People instead of sanctions provide the way forward
Feb 24, 2011

Middle East & Africa: People instead of sanctions provide the way forward

Around the world, history has demonstrated the power of citizens and their ability to mobilize and improve the course of their countries. Democratic, liberalizing reforms have occurred from the Polish solidarity movement in Eastern Europe to the flourishing Bolivian democracy in South America. However, there is this sense that persists that somehow the Islamic world is different and that instead of waiting for the people to change their countries - let alone empowering them to do so - that direct interventions and, when there is no pretext for that, sanctions regimes are needed. The massive, populist protests sweeping Northern Africa and the Middle East set to rest this argument.

The main method of sanctions is to influence the actions of foreign states through economic and diplomatic pressures. Unfortunately, what happens in all to many cases is that it is the citizenry of foreign countries that experiences the brunt of the pressure through lower economic opportunities, for instance. Indeed, it is often the case that sanctions regimes foster dependency of the people upon the state and strengthens the state domestically. While sanctions regimes usually have pretexts of shorter term objectives than having the people overturn the state - such as punitive or preventative sanctions - the idea that pressuring rogue states with sanctions to encourage internal revolution remains. In cases such as North Korea or Cuba, the sanctions regimes have been going on for decades with little progress towards internal revolution and, as was seen so poignantly in Iraq, such sanctions often lead to horrific suffering for the people.

One consequent of the extensive protests and regime changes in Northern Africa and the Middle east is that it provides a clear alternative path towards internal regime change than that of sanctions. Further, we see that it is not pressuring the people that results in these successful protests but empowering them. The idea that a people who are worse off are more likely to revolt does not stand.

What is particularly striking about the protests is their lack of commonality. Economically, Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain are relatively well off with significant development, a middle class, access to modern amenities like the internet and social media which was so key in triggering these revolution and protests. On the other hand Yemen is close to being a failed state and Libya is not much further ahead. Politically, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain are all very much US backed and key military allies while Libya is a pariah state very much cut off from US influence. Bahrain is dominated by its demographic divide with a Sunni minority ruling over a Shi'a majority while Tunisia is majority Sunni. And so on.

 The noticeable pattern is not some specific commonality between these cases but the lack of commonality and the idea that such internal revolutions are possible across the gamut of states. In particular, when we see the revolutions where they started in Tunisia with its relatively high wealth and modernity for the region, it becomes clear that taking attempts to raise the quality of life of the people and encouraging interconnectedness with the rest of the world does not necessarily entrench a dictator but quite the opposite empowers the people to take things into their own hands. Indeed, the pattern around the world has been that with rising wealth of the people brings pressures to change the existing regimes.

When we contrast the potential the alternate path of internal, populist revolutions provides with the ineptitude of either decades long sanctions regimes or the humanitarian brutality of the regimes against, say, Iraq in the 90's it gives significant pause about the validity of sanctions as a tool of international relations. The immediate and obvious benefit of doing everything one can to raise the quality of life of a people is such that a path - such as sanctions - that does not aim to optimize this should have an enormously convincing case about its positive potential. Having the people rise up and kick out Saddam Hussein in the 90's would have been an excellent outcome - this is certainly well motivated - but we have to ask whether the method we are choosing is an effective one. The evidence thus far is that empowering people who will on their own accord protest their oppressive governments, not imposed sanctions, should be the methodology of choice.

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