U.S. policymakers were wrong in the way they dealt with the Arab Spring and the events that preceded it, says American scholar Walid Phares, an expert on the Middle East and global terrorism.
"First of all, before the Arab Spring, all the waves that indicated that an Arab Spring is about to happen, we mishandled them. In June of 2009, at a time when 1.5 to 2 million Iranians, 60 percent of whom were under the age of 20 … were demonstrating in Iran against the regime … the president made a statement whereby the regime in Iran understood that we would not stand by the Iranian people. We lost a huge opportunity to bring down, to change that regime," he told Newsmax TV's John Bachman and J.D. Hayworth on "America's Forum" Tuesday.
"And imagine, that would have basically created a win for half the war on terror. Then, when the Arab Spring began, the first wave was remarkable — youth, women, minorities in Egypt, Indonesia and Syria … but instead of giving visibility to the seculars and reformers, we began partnering up with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ennahda in Tunisia, and Salafi militias in Libya, one of which attacked us on September of 2012. So all of these grave mistakes have led to cataclysmic changes in the Middle East."
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Phares's latest book is "The Lost Spring: U.S. Policy in the Middle East and Catastrophes to Avoid."
He argued that while Obama may have appeared to be advocating change in the Arab world in his June 2009 speech in Cairo, it was more form than substance.
"The American president was addressing an audience in Egypt, but the substance was different. The substance was addressed to the Muslim Brotherhood at the time. Yes, the administration was saying we need to change, but the forces of change were not the democratic ones. We were looking at partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood, their delegations were in Washington, they were paraded in many cities in the West. We ignored completely the real forces of change, of democracy, those who actually did the Arab Spring and those who again came back on the streets of Cairo on June 30, 2013," Phares said.
"Thirty-three million Egyptians rose not just against Mubarak but again against Morsi, and this is telling us that civil societies in the region do want what we want, but our policy is not connecting with them, it's connecting, in this case, with the brotherhood in northern Africa."
He maintained that the United States is making a similar mistake in its approach to Iran.
"There is a hope in Washington, at least political Washington, that the ayatollahs are going to reform. So we are cutting deals with them, and we are unfreezing money and sending billions of dollars to them. These are mistakes that need to be addressed and changed," he said.
As for what's happening in Egypt now in light of a court on Monday sentencing to death more than 500 supporters of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, Phares said the Morsi regime had been turning Egypt into an Islamic state, contrary to what the protesters in Tahrir Square fought for.
"The Morsi regime has armed a militia, and the militia, even after the fall of his regime, is still fighting. Fighting the army, fighting the police, fighting the judges, and also trying to destabilize the country. Now, many of these militia have been arrested by the government of Egypt, and these trials basically are going to be long trials. Definitely these sentences, these death sentences will be dealt with at the appeal level. This is just the process of an interim government trying to struggle to get to the other side of stability," he explained.
"There will be elections in Egypt for a president, for the parliament, and I would say the parliamentary elections would be more important because it's going to create, to give Egypt an opportunity to have a Congress-like institution where they can do debate, open debate. At least that's the path that we are seeing for now."
Asked what needs to be done now to see a change for the better in the Middle East, the Lebanese-born Phares responded, "We need to do a lot of things, and a change of direction in Washington has to take place first, as we all know.
"Second, in Syria, we need to find the right partner on the ground. Assad is linked to Iran, part of the opposition is al-Qaida, and we need to find that third party, and it exists. Those demonstrators who began the opposition in Syria, where are they? Who's in charge of them? We need to connect with them. There are minorities in Syria that we need to work with."
He continued, "In Iran, we need to send the money actually to the Iranian opposition. We need to organize them. They are very strong. The youngest in Iran are ready to move. In Egypt, in Libya, and Tunisia, we need to side with civil society, not with the Islamists and not with the authoritarian regime."
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