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Western double standards over Libya will help Islamists

By Ömer Taspinar, Special to CNN
  • Ömer Taspinar: Many in the region see a double standard over West's intervention in Libya
  • People asking why West is silent about suppression of dissidents in Bahrain, says Taspinar
  • Saudi Arabia also guilty of double standards, he says
  • Perceived hypocrisy will encourage radical Islamists

Editor's note: Ömer Taspinar is Professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College and the Director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

(CNN) -- After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the West nervously waited for similar uprisings in the "Arab Street." Practically nothing changed in the Arab world in the last 30 years. Yet, since the beginning of 2011, events in the Middle East have been unfolding at a dizzying pace.

We are only in March, and already regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have been overthrown by the peoples' demonstrations; the uprising in Libya has forced the international community to take military action against Muammar Gadhafi; Yemen is witnessing bloody chaos; Syria is showing signs of serious unrest and Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to crush the opposition.

Welcome to a rapidly changing new Middle East.

So far, none of the peoples' movements have been directed against the West. It was not "Western imperialism" but a combination of domestic political repression, youth unemployment, heightened expectations and socio-economic deprivation that mobilized Arab masses.

Unfortunately, this positive dynamic may soon come to an end.

In the eyes of many Arabs in the region, a deeply troubling Western double standard is emerging.
--Omer Taspinar
  • Bahrain
  • Libya
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Yemen

In the eyes of many Arabs in the region, a deeply troubling Western double standard is emerging. Many in the region are asking a simple question: Why is the West willing to intervene in Libya, while there is total Western silence about the brutal suppression of dissidents in Bahrain?

The West appears to be quite selective in lending its support to the "Arab Spring."

As Ramy Khouri, an insightful analyst from Lebanon, warns us: "The lesson that many are drawing is that two distinct standards apply to Arab citizens' rights. In countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the world will accept or actively support constitutional changes that citizens of those countries demand. In other Arab countries, like Bahrain, the rights of citizens are secondary to wider energy and security needs."

The fact that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to Bahrain clearly shows that these energy-producing conservative Arab countries are deeply worried about a spillover of unrest into their own countries.

There is also the fear of Iran looming on the horizon. Through its Shiite proxies, Iran can support opposition forces in Yemen and Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority and Yemen a significant Shiite minority. There is therefore a strong undertone of Sunni-Shiite tension behind Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E's action.

The presence of al-Qaida in Yemen is another complicating factor about what would happen in case of a total collapse of the Yemeni state. And of course, the most difficult question to answer is, what will happen when a similar uprising takes place in Saudi Arabia?

But such Western security concerns don't change the question that millions of Arab youth are asking: Why should the U.N. principle of "responsibility to protect" apply only to countries like Libya and leave Bahrain and Yemen out in the cold?

Surely all regimes in the region are not equally brutal. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Yemen may appear to have more legitimacy than Gadhafi's regime in Libya, yet the Yemeni and Bahraini governments have shown no mercy against protesters in recent weeks.

The double standard is also obvious in the Saudi behavior. The Saudis have backed intervention in Libya to help the rebels at the same moment as they have sent troops into Bahrain to help suppress a rebellion.

Many in Bahrain -- in fact the majority of the country given the Shiite demographics -- see the Saudi move as an "occupation" by foreign forces.

The West has so far been lucky about the absence of Islamists in mass demonstrations for democracy and human rights in the region. Yet, unless Europe and the United States become more consistent in their support for democracy in the region, soon it will be radical Islamists and enemies of the West that will have the upper hand in mass demonstrations.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ömer Taspinar.