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How the US can support Arab democracy

Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan are all at a turning point and authoritarian forces in the region are working hard to push them away from democracy.

Analysis | Middle East

For decades, the U.S. has focused heavily on arms sales to countries in the Middle East. Yet a mistaken assumption is that further militarization of the region will enhance security. In fact, the opposite is true. After all, if further arming of Arab states would lead to stability, the billions of dollars-worth of weapons that Washington has provided to Egypt, Israel, Gulf Cooperation Council members, and other regional states would have stabilized the Middle East by now.

America doing much to militarize regimes in the region has not resulted in the U.S. enjoying a favorable position in the hearts and minds of their citizens. Take Egypt for instance: Washington has been providing the country with an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance. Yet, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, only ten percent of Egyptian citizens view the U.S. favorably. Jordan is another example of a country that has received high levels of military support from the U.S. where the level of anti-Americanism is about the same as in Egypt. 

It’s time to rethink America’s purpose and strategic goals in the Middle East. The U.S. should limit its arms sales to the region while shifting its focus to growing its soft-power in the domains of, for example education and humanitarian assistance.

The U.S. could also improve its standing if Washington would back up its rhetoric about promoting democracy worldwide. Regarding the need for a new U.S. foreign policy that is supportive of democratic transitions in the region, three Arab League members come to mind: Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan.


Tunisia is widely hailed as the only Arab Spring “success story.” Yet today Tunisia’s fragile democracy is vulnerable to the meddling of the Arab world’s counterrevolutionary axis — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who fear Tunisia possibly becoming a model for the region.

In addition to some internal political turmoil, many Tunisians suspect that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would like to “repeat the Egyptian scenario” in Tunis — i.e. bankrolling a coup that ends Tunisia’s democracy. Indeed, there’s some evidence that the UAE and Saudi Arabia already have their sights on destabilizing Tunisia.

Moreover, Tunisia’s Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi has publicly pushed back, recently praising Libyan forces loyal to the Government of National Accord following their victories against the Libyan National Army, led by the Saudi- and Emirati-backed strongman Khalifa Haftar.

To have some credibility when claiming to support democracy in the Arab world, Washington should stand by Tunisia as it seeks to defend its hard-fought gains in the post-revolution period. The U.S. should tell its Gulf partners to avoid interference in Tunisia and become more accepting of the Maghrebi country’s transition to democracy.


In Libya, various regional and global powers have been supporting Haftar throughout his military operations against GNA-allied forces. The renegade general’s backing from the region’s counterrevolutionary axis has been about these Arab states’ interests in seeing to it that no democratic transition succeeds in Libya. Such an outcome, they fear, could lead to the institutionalized Islamist power centers emerging. Of course, a major danger from their perspective is that a Muslim Brotherhood-led order taking shape in Libya could inspire Islamist parties and movements elsewhere, including in the Gulf sub-region.

Haftar, like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, represents the type of “secular” strongman whom the leadership in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh see as the best option for a country like Libya where Islamists possess significant political influence. While Trump chose to mainly outsource the U.S.’s Libya policy to a handful of states, including some of Haftar’s top backers (Egypt, France, Russia, and the UAE), the Trump administration was leaning toward a pro-LNA position in 2017-2018.

Trump’s outright support for Haftar between April and June 2019 represented “the first sign of the volatility of U.S. policy in Libya,” as Arab Center DC’s Joe Macaron observed. Moreover, it served to boost the morale of Haftar’s LNA which saw itself as receiving the blessing of America’s leadership.

Although the GNA has its share of problems — dysfunctionality, weakness, excessive reliance on non-Libyan mercenaries, etc. — the White House should make it more firmly clear that it opposes efforts on the part of Libya’s eastern side to topple the sole government in the North African country deemed legitimate by the United Nations and almost all EU and African Union members. To be sure, while the GNA deserves its fair share of criticisms, the U.S. should never consider empowering Haftar to Libya’s “new Moammar Qaddafi.”


After Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir lost power in 2019, the country has started a hopeful move toward democracy. Yet this transition has been filled with major difficulties. The Sudanese “Deep State” being reluctant to relinquish its power coupled with financial crises, the coronavirus pandemic, and human rights abuses all represent challenges to the process of democratizing Sudan. Unfortunately, certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy serve to dim the prospects for a democratic transition in post-Bashir Sudan.

As Sudan prepares for elections in 2022, a sovereign council made up of civilian and military officials rules the country. Between now and the elections, Sudanese civil society is expected to regrow and help institutionalize certain freedoms. But a major concern is that Sudan’s current civilian leadership will fail to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of Sudan’s citizenry depending on the trajectory of economic crises plaguing the country.

As University of San Francisco Professor Stephen Zunes argues, “the single biggest obstacle to Sudan's economic recovery is the continued U.S. economic sanctions, which… not only impacts trade with and investment from the United States, but from other countries and multilateral entities as well.” Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council concurs, maintaining that a lifting of U.S. sanctions on Sudan is necessary in order for the country to achieve sufficient economic progress in this interim period.

Such U.S.-imposed sanctions began in 1993 after the Clinton administration sought to punish and isolate Khartoum for its ties to groups such as Hamas, the Abu Nidal Organization, the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, Hezbollah, Jamaat al-Islamiyya, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Ever since, Sudan has been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. What does not make sense is that the post-Bashir government in Khartoum has no ties to these organizations and keeping these sanctions on the country only punishes Sudanese citizens for these relationships fostered by the dictator whom they bravely rose up against in 2018/2019.

In fact, even Bashir’s government severed Khartoum’s relations with these non-state actors prior to the former president’s fall from power. Five years ago, the State Department acknowledged that “the United States and Sudan worked cooperatively in countering the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and ISIL in 2015, which included their use of transit and facilitation routes within the country.”

So the U.S.’s Sudan policy is frozen in a past. Zunes summed it up best, saying that Washington is “effectively punishing [the Sudanese] further for having overthrown [the Bashir] dictatorship.”

It would be unfortunate if Sudan’s current problems exacerbate due to continued U.S. sanctions which could result in undemocratic actors in Sudan derailing the country’s delicate and sensitive transition to democracy for their own gain, ultimately crushing the dreams of the brave Sudanese who risked their lives to pressure Bashir into relinquishing power.

Looking ahead, Tunisia, Libya, and Sudan are countries with highly uncertain futures. Of course, at a time in which the U.S.’s influence in the region is declining, there is a limit to what Washington can do to affect developments in these Arab states’ internal politics. Yet the U.S. should seize opportunities to play a productive role in terms of helping the Tunisians, Libyans, and Sudanese who are trying to live free of dictatorships and oppressive military regimes. 

Tunisia's President-elect Kais Saied takes the oath of office at the National Assembly (parliament) in Tunis, Tunisia on October 23, 2019. (Photo: Noureddine Ahmed /
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