America and the Arab Spring 

Mr. Joe Stork
Deputy Director
Human Rights Watch, Middle East and North Africa Division

July 5, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Mr. Stork said that he indulges the label “Arab Spring” because he often finds himself “sympathetic to grand terms,” but warns that revolutionary success is not yet guaranteed in Egypt and Tunisia, much less other states in the Middle East. He had varied reactions to the U.S. responses to each state in the Arab Spring. He thinks Tunisia and Egypt were handled well by the Obama Administration, despite U.S. reaction toward the latter country being a “circus balancing act.”  He also said that it is politically easy to criticize regime leaders in Syria and Libya due to an acrimonious history between the United States and those regimes.

Mr. Stork “can find a lot of fault” with how the Administration has hesitated to take a stand against Bahraini oppression of protestors. When asked if he could see the United States intervening to keep an oppressive regime in power (the opposite of the current Libyan situation), he said that our record on the issue was “very checkered.”  Mr. Stork believes international intervention in Syria unlikely because many members of the U.N. Security Council  are “burnt out” over Libya, hesitant to encroach on Syria’s sovereignty without Arab League support, and in the case of Russia and China, worried about establishing an interventionist precedent for human rights violations.

Mr. Stork said that NGOs have been “carrying the torch through many long winters,” as they began working to build Arab societies long before the current revolutions by providing social services as well as an outlet for employment and productivity for political dissidents. He speculated that it would be interesting to see which NGOs survive the transition towards more open government by staying relevant. Mr. Stork believes civil society to be the most critical area of change, and he hopes to see a continued emphasis on dialogue that promotes structural reform—coming with the assistance of both NGOs and the U.S. government—as the Arab Spring continues.