People should be able to express ideas freely’

Those who wish to be part of a democratic process in the Middle East should ensure that the aspirations of citizens are respected, says senior US official

A senior US official has conceded the possibility that the political transformation taking place in some countries in the Arab world may assume an extremist shape, and cautioned that those who aspire for true democracy should ensure that the will of the people prevails.

“We have seen in previous periods of history that revolutions that began with great promise, like the Iranian revolution for example, were hijacked by those with an extreme agenda, who then pushed others out of the political sphere and began trampling on democratic rights and values,” said Tamara Wittes, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, in response to a question from Muscat Daily on Tuesday.

She was speaking during a live televised web conference from Washington, aimed at discussing the Arab Spring and the uprisings in the Middle East.

Citizens should shape their own future

Asked about the danger of hardline political groups benefitting from the ensuing chaos in the countries hit by revolutions, as in Tunisia where the recent polls put the hardline Ennahda in power, Wittes said, “All of us who care about the fate of the region and the fate of these new democracies need to pay attention and do what we can to try and ensure that the aspirations of citizens are respected in the way these transitions move forward.”

Wittes also stressed on the need for an ‘open political marketplace’ in these countries. “People should be able to express their ideas freely, but if you want to be an actor in democratic politics, there are some core principles to which you must adhere. You have to commit yourself to not using violence to achieve your political goals, to working  peacefully through the system,” she said.

“You have to commit yourself to the democratic rules of the game, whether you win or whether you lose. And you have to commit yourself to treating all citizens of the state equally – equality under the law [is] a core principle of democracy. So I think these are essential elements for any new political actor who wants to participate in the democratic system.”

The US official felt that ‘ultimately, it’s going to be the citizens of these states who are going to shape their own future and decide whether these new political parties win or lose at the polls’.

Wittes also emphasised that an election by itself is not the end of democratic development. “In many ways, it’s just the beginning. And it’s how these political actors play their roles in accordance with democratic principles that will ultimately demonstrate whether they can play a constructive role in democratic politics,” she said.

Palestinian bid, a symbolic move

Last week, the US cut off funds for the UNESCO after the UN agency admitted Palestine as a full member. Asked why the US was not adhering to the principles of democracy in the matter when an overwhelming majority of nations (107 to 14) has voted in favour of  the Palestinian membership, Wittes dismissed the Palestinian move as an attempt for symbolic gains.

“It’s been our view that trying to achieve symbolic gains in international institutions is not going to get Palestinians any closer to their goal of sovereignty and  statehood. This is a symbolic move at UNESCO. It doesn’t make a difference to the lives of any Palestinians on the ground,” she said. Wittes said the US efforts is ‘focused on bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, where they can settle the remaining issues between them and achieve that negotiated two-state solution that is the only path to lasting stability and peace for both peoples, the peace that they both so richly deserve’.

“I think it’s very  important to understand that the US, along with a very wide majority in the  international community and along with countries in the region and Israelis and Palestinians, all of us agree on the core goal, which is a two-state solution where

Israel and Palestine live side by side in dignity and sovereignty and peace,” she said. “The vote at the UNESCO [on Monday], in our view, was unfortunate and a diversion in many ways from the real work that needs to get done at the negotiating table.”


NATO’s Libya mission had wide support

Responding to a question on Libya, Wittes defended NATO’s mission which has increasingly come under criticism, particularly from the BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - which accuses the Western military alliance of exceeding the UN mandate. The BRICS have also blocked the UN resolution against Syria, which was being strongly pushed by the US and its Western allies.

Stating the oft-repeated US explanation on the issue, Wittes said, “I think what you had there (in Libya) was an uprising that began peacefully, that was met with intense violence from [Moammar] Gadhafi’s government and, faced with that brutality, began to respond to defend the citizens of Libya. Those who were engaged in that uprising asked for international protection to defend their own citizens. The Arab League voted for international intervention to protect civilians, and then the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for measures by the international community to protect civilians.”

She stressed that the NATO mission was restricted to that goal. “That’s what it was about. It was about preventing Gadhafi and his military forces from carrying out what surely would have been massacres of their own

citizens. I believe NATO succeeded in that mission, and I believe the Libyan people on the ground succeeded in liberating their own country with the support and protection provided by that NATO mission.”

Wittes believed the policies behind the NATO mission had ‘very wide support in the international community’. “You see today the wide number of countries who are welcoming the emergence of a new, free Libya and working to support it as it moves toward democracy,” she pointed out.

During the 30-minute web interaction with a select group of international media, Wittes also expressed concern about the situations in Syria and Yemen while hailing Kuwait’s democratic experience in the Middle East as a model for the region.

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