A Chill Settles On Arab Spring

Beyond Egypt, Libya is afflicted by armed militias. Syria is suffering a bloody civil war. Protests were quashed in Bahrain. Host Scott Simon talks with Edward Walker, former ambassador to Egypt and Israel, for a long view on the promise and payoff of the Arab Spring.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Arab Spring seems chilly two and a half years after revolutions rolled across the Middle East. This week, world news has been dominated by the suffering and the dying in Egypt after the army overthrew an elected Islamist president and killed hundreds of his supporters over these past few days. Libya is afflicted by armed militias. Protests have been quashed in Bahrain. A new constitution's been delayed in Tunisia. And the government crushing of opposition has led to a bloody civil war in Syria.

Ambassador Edward Walker has been, among other posts, ambassador to both Egypt and Israel in the 1990s and he worked for many years as a diplomat in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Ambassador Walker, thanks for being with us.

EDWARD WALKER: A pleasure.

SIMON: I guess to put it as bluntly as some people have been, has democracy been worse or at least just as brutal as dictatorships ever were?

WALKER: Well, I wouldn't really call it a democracy now. I don't think Arab Spring actually led to a democracy. The prospect for democracy was there, and there are certainly some major changes that have taken place. In terms of people's attitudes, people anticipate now that there will be more - they will have more say in what happens in the future. They don't accept automatically what the leaders say.

So that's a change, but we weren't anywhere near democracy in the Arab Spring. A lot more has to happen before you actually get genuine. And we're still struggling with elements of democracy, voter registration and so on, in this country. so, it's not surprising. It takes time and hard work.

SIMON: Yeah. Can we still refer to Egypt as being in a transition to democracy or is something else going on right now?

WALKER: I think it's premature to say it's transition to democracy. I don't think they have the foundation for a genuine transition to democracy. In fact, what we're seeing today is really a replay of what we had for so long, 40 years, under Mubarak. It's much the same tactics, partly because there is no trust between the parties. There is a huge gap. The military is convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to destroy the military, at least as they know it.

And the Brotherhood obviously thinks that the military wants to push them back into jails and their cells that they had them in for 40 years. So, there's no trust between the people, and no confidence that the other side is willing to compromise. That doesn't lead you very easily into democracy.

SIMON: In your judgment, sir, should the U.S. have halted military aid to Egypt?

WALKER: In my judgment it's irrelevant. Do you realize how little money is involved here? It's not that much money and it's certainly not enough money to make anybody change fundamental policies when they believe that the opposition is out to get them. The Egyptians simply don't need the money for the military. They've got all the equipment they really need right now. In fact, they've got more equipment than they need for the threat that's against them. So it's not a critical factor.

SIMON: So what role does that leave for the United States? Or should the United States not necessarily look for a role to play?

WALKER: Well, I think if we have to stand for what we believe in and our principles. If it makes it better in terms of the broader issue of our position in the Middle East to cut the aid, then we should do it.

SIMON: And what would that policy be?

WALKER: Ah, I really think that we should be trying to avoid the pitfall of over-promising. I think that one of the problems this administration has had is a rhetorical problem. It's very good at making rhetorical statements but it's not very good at living up to them. And if you're going to make a commitment to a certain standard and a certain way of thinking, you've got to live with it.

SIMON: You mean the red line?

WALKER: I mean the red lines. And he started talking about red lines, and if you start talking about human rights, and if all of a sudden you've got problems in Guantanamo or you've got torture in the United States, you have no standing. You have no basis for then preaching to the world. If you're going to be a preacher, you've got to live the preaching, and I think one of our problems and one of the difficulties that we have is living up to what we stand for.

SIMON: If you were making U.S. policy now, what two or three things would you do, would you recommend?

WALKER: Well, I'm not making policy and I have no idea what is going on in the White House at all. I would say that the first thing I would do is make very sure that our declarative policy is the same as our operational policy; that we don't have a gap in between the two. And I think the second thing that you have to do is you have to really understand that you have to treat policy from a broad regional perspective at the minimum and maybe larger than that.

You can't just focus narrowly on one subject and expect that it won't have an impact on the next-door neighbors and so on. So, a comprehensive policy is absolutely imperative. And beyond that, we have to look to our levers. What is it that we have that we can add? We have enormous stable of capabilities that we could bring to bear on almost any subject, and we have a lot of integrity in general.

We wasted some of it, but generally speaking, the world likes Americans. It would like to see us lead. There's no real effort out there to say, well, we don't want the Americans leading anymore. So, we've got a lot to build on.

SIMON: Ambassador Edward Walker, thanks very much.

WALKER: You're quite welcome and thank you for the opportunity to talk.

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