Guest Post: Assia Boundaoui on Obama’s Speech, the Arab Spring and North Africa

Below is a guest post by the terrific Algerian-American writer and radio journalist Assia Boundaoui (@assuss) on President Obama’s speech written special to TMND. Boundaoui has covered protests in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere from the front lines.  The views expressed below are her own. 

“If a revolutionary falls in a forest in North Africa, and no American was there to see it…”

By: Assia Boundaoui

Listening to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa, a geographically-illiterate observer might come to conclude that North Africa is made up of only three countries: Egypt in the West, Libya in the East, and Tunisia in the middle. The other countries that actually make up the Western-half of North Africa – Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and the Western Sahara– went entirely unmentioned in the President’s speech.

As President Obama pontificated on providing economic support and promoting democracy in North Africa, he repeatedly invoked the Tunisia-Egypt duo, but conspicuously left out Libya, not to mention the Western-half of North Africa.

“America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy — starting with Tunisia and Egypt.”

Meanwhile serious uprisings, largely ignored by the American press, have taken place (and continue to take place) in the ignored Western-half of North Africa. In the wake of the famed Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the student protest movement was building momentum in Algeria, the April 25 youth protests shook Mauritania, and the February protests in Morocco helped bring about a new constitution. There is no doubt that uprisings continue to foment in the rest of North Africa, but meanwhile both the US administration and the mainstream American press don’t seem to take much notice.

Is it that the American media has no interest in the Western, francophone half of North Africa, or is it simply that U.S. political and economic interests don’t stretch that far West?

The question isn’t an easy one to answer, but one thing is clear: whether or not Presidential rhetoric or American press cameras are directed at the Western half of North Africa – the demands of the people there remain legitimate, and the people will continue to revolt until they see those demands met.

The fact is, the people of the Middle East and North Africa are not taking their cues from the American administration – most didn’t even listen to the President’s speech. Even in the two countries President Obama referenced the most, (Tunisia ten times and Egypt thirteen times), most Egyptians and Tunisians on the so-called “Arab Street” don’t seem to have even heard the speech.

Twitter and Facebook were awash this morning with Western journalists, based in North Africa, lamenting the lack of reactions to Obama’s speech from locals.

NicRobertsonCNN  Nic Robertson

Out and about in Djerba: cafes busy but hard to find Tunisians who watched Obama speech; implies little of value in it for them

kristenchick  Kristen Chick

It’s no fun to seek reaction when you have to inform people first about the event they’re supposed to be reacting to. #egypt  #MEspeech

More than just changing the power structure of the regimes in the Arab world, the revolutions and uprisings that have sweet the region have undoubtedly reconfigured the Arab Street’s complicated relationship with the U.S.

President Obama’s speech on the Middle East did little more than try to re-affirm the old American hegemony in the Middle East. It also begged the question: If a revolutionary falls in a North African forest, and no American is around to see it, does it matter?

The “Arab Spring” has reaffirmed that the answer is a resounding yes.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: Assia Boundaoui on Obama’s Speech, the Arab Spring and North Africa

  1. skyscrappercity.com algeria

    He did not forget those two countries because both countries were one of the few countries the did not fire on protesters. other serious things are happening
    he also did not mention Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey
    all of which had social protests in 2011
    On the opposite those two countries are fundamental to US policy
    Hillary Clinton is a well known moroccophile
    and the US is starting to open its economic relations with Algeria. Big market waiting to open
    Like a diplomat speaking the US is saying
    there on the way to becoming a democracy and becoming a democracy is a long process
    and after 250 years we are still trying to improve
    our version of a democracy so hold on

  2. Things may be low key, but there have been a few signs of US interest in Algeria: Visits by high ranking military officials from US Africa Command, 2 visits by foreign affairs minister to Washington in the past 6 months, a visit by the minister for energy and mines in Houston, some US business delegations visiting Algeria, and an announcement of a possible US campus (UC Denver) in Algeria. Obviously the main here is linked to AQMI, Western Sahara (to some extent), and Oil.

    On the other hand, it is true that US media has not been interested in Algeria once it appeared that events there would not be as spectacular as in Tunisia and Egypt. But this is in keeping with a long standing pattern.

    I am not sure that the student protest movement in Algeria can be lumped with what is going on elsewhere in the region. The students are affected by the mood but they have painstakingly maintained their distance from any political demand. They also seem disconnected from the labor movement.

    The fragmentation of the society (political parties, students, workers etc.) delays the emergence of a significant protest movement in Algeria (in addition to the often reported fear of a repeat of the bloody 90’s). The regime is capitalizing on that and is trying to “bribe” key players while it attempts to usher some (limited) reforms to maintain itself in power.

    We’ll have to wait to see how this plays out.

  3. I did interview PJ Crowley when he was spokesman of the US State department, interview published in the newspaper Liberté on Feb.19 2011. He had, let say “very tough” purposes against the Algerian regime and that was despite a strategic and a growing relationships between the USA and Algeria..
    For your info: Algeria had lifted the state of emergency “mainly” because of the USA request and had started talks on constitution reforms “mainly” because of the USA interference.
    At all regards, Algeria and Morocco are not as destabilized as the other countries in the region and both countries are under reform. In Morocco, the king announced a transition from an “absolute monarchy” to a “constitutional monarchy” this is a huge steps in Moroccan history, when usually in the past they just open fire on protestors or put them in prison without trial. In Algeria the police was facing protestors without even wearing fire arms when they did NOT hesitate to open fire on protestors in 1988 in Algiers killing more than 600 people during a similar uprising we have seen years later in Tunisia..
    And Assia is right, president Obama should have had mentioned these two countries as the best example of transition in the region but he was just focused on the bad ones as Libya, Yemen.. And the ones with decapitated governments..
    Now president Obama speech is at many dimensions HISTORICAL as he made official the framework between Israel and Palestine – border lines of 1967- and he considerably pushed Netanyahu to end the political tango and to keep the talks going. Israel usually finds a way or another, between republican and democrat to do not do so. President Obama took a big risk making that statement in this period of pre-electoral period. Now we have never seen the “Arab street” reacting to any western leader speech and even to their own leaders, only if they are “pushed” to react. Otherwise, what do you want them to do in reaction to president Obama speech? They are already standing up to their regimes and killed daily by dozens!

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