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As Upheaval Seizes Arab World, Uncertainty Paralyzes Ambassadors

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More than half a year has now passed since 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid — sparking a pro-democracy revolution that has spread to the far corners of the Arab world.

Noisy street protests demanding the overthrow of authoritarian rulers have shaken capital cities across the region and given rise to the so-called Arab spring. Battles rage and regimes teeter in Syria and Yemen, Libya is engulfed in outright civil war, and tensions continue to simmer in half a dozen other countries including Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia, where it all began. A chaotic cacophony of change can be heard from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. Yet hardly a peep has been uttered from those embattled countries' diplomats here in Washington.

Except for Morocco's Aziz Mekouar, who was profiled in last month's issue of this newspaper, not a single Arab ambassador to the United States would speak to The Washington Diplomat for this story.

Perhaps that is the story.

"The Arab ambassadors here are all in a difficult position since they represent endangered regimes which may not last the summer. No one knows which Arab police state may collapse next," suggests Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "So the prudent policy is to keep mum — especially in public. If and when the revolution comes, then try to jump to the winner."

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Although ambassadors such as Bahrain's Houda Nonoo have remained largely silent about the wave of protests rocking the Arab world, the same can't be said of the protestors, a handful of which have staged small-scale demonstrations at embassies in Washington, D.C., such as this protest several months ago in front of the Bahraini Embassy on International Drive.

Marwan Muasher, Jordan's ambassador to the United States who went on to become his country's foreign minister and now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has long advocated for political and economic reform in the Arab world. But he too declined comment, saying he didn't feel comfortable telling other Arab ambassadors what they should do.

In late February, Libya's ex-ambassador, Ali Aujali, resigned in protest over Muammar Qaddafi's atrocities, telling whoever would listen that he could no longer represent a regime that slaughtered its own people and earning widespread media coverage for his defection in publications such as the New York Times, including a cover profile in this newspaper (also see "Qaddafi's Man No More: Disgusted, Envoy Breaks Free of Former Boss" in the April 2011 issue).

Yet the seasoned diplomat didn't have much to say on the plight of his fellow ambassadors, other than that he'd be surprised if any of his Arab colleagues on Embassy Row did what he did and turn against their governments.

Indeed, although Aujali was joined by other Libyan envoys around the world in renouncing his old boss, there hasn't been a wave of diplomatic defections by other nations' envoys. Around the world, some of Yemen's ambassadors, including its envoy to the United Nations, have resigned in recent months, as have a few envoys from Syria. Notably, in a bizarre and confusing diplomatic hoax, Syria's ambassador to France, Lamia Shakkour, adamantly denied a French news report that she had quit her post, saying someone had impersonated her as part of a disinformation campaign against Damascus.

But here in Washington, the majority of Arab ambassadors have remained put and sat silent — and the Middle East experts we talked to tend to agree with Aujali's assessment that most won't follow his lead.

Edward "Skip" Gnehm, former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait and Jordan and now a professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said even in the best of times, it's awkward for diplomats to criticize their bosses.

"If I were still the ambassador in Amman and there was a political campaign going on the States with mudslinging back and forth, I'd be very reticent to talk about that," he explained. "I'd talk about the process and the issues, but I'd be very careful to stay away from the personalities."

Brookings scholar Shibley Telhami, who's also a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said he doesn't expect a single Arab ambassador accredited to the United States to follow Aujali's example.

"By and large, most envoys — particularly those sent to Washington — are close to the top leaders in the countries that appointed them," said Telhami, noting that Libya was a special situation. "Normally, envoys are professionals from their foreign ministries, but Washington is such a sensitive position that this is often a very personal appointment linked to the top leadership."

In Yemen's case, he said, Ambassador Abdulwahab Al-Hajjri "is well-liked in Washington, but he has a very personal relationship with the president's family, and that makes it very hard to distance himself."

In fact, Al-Hajjri's sister is married to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who in early June was flown to Saudi Arabia for emergency medical treatment following a particularly vicious attack on his compound in Sanaa, the capital. Saleh, who reportedly suffered burns over 40 percent of his body, is unlikely to ever get back the job he held for 32 years. It's also a safe bet that Yemen will now descend further into anarchy and poverty than ever before.

The socially amicable but publicly shy Al-Hajjri, who's been ambassador in Washington since 1997, rarely spoke to any media outlets even before the current unrest exploded across Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world — so his refusal to comment now doesn't come as much of a surprise.

At the same time, two other ambassadors who spoke freely to us and had a high public profile before the Arab spring, Bahrain's Houda Nonoo and Syria's Imad Moustapha, have clammed up in recent months.

Despite the Bahraini government's recent call for dialogue and lifting of the emergency law, watchdog groups have accused the authorities of myriad human rights abuses, including mass detentions and closed-door trials following a violent clampdown on protests held by the country's Shiite majority.

For awhile, the Bahraini Embassy on International Drive — the scene of several small-scale protests — was putting out rather nonsensical updates written in flowery praise of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa but saying virtually nothing original.

Nonoo, a woman and the first Jew ever to represent an Arab country in Washington, a background that garnered her a lot of positive media coverage before the protests, hasn't returned a single phone call to The Diplomat since widespread political violence erupted in the tiny, oil-rich Gulf sheikhdom earlier this year.

Her embassy has released a barrage of statements aggressively trying to defend the government's actions as necessary to restore public order and security.

"The protesters did not use peaceful tactics and during the height of unrest, protesters overran our main thoroughfare and threatened our infrastructure. Bahrain was under siege and any sense of normal life was brought to a halt. Schools, businesses and ministries could not operate. The financial harbor was temporarily shut down due to road blocks and the main hospital was transformed into an opposition political command center," declared an April statement from the embassy put out by PR Newswire. "Bahrain's protests had turned violent and the government was forced to respond."

But many of the press releases have rung hollow in the wake of headline-grabbing incidents that have tarnished Bahrain's once-progressive reputation — such as the one-year jail sentence recently imposed on Ayat al-Qormozi, a 20-year-old poet who read a poem criticizing government policy and was later subjected to electrical shocks and beatings with a hose while in detention, according to a relative.

"By locking up a female poet merely for expressing her views in public, Bahrain's authorities are demonstrating how free speech and assembly are brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

In another incident that has further strained U.S.-Bahraini relations, a human rights officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain, Ludovic Hood, was forced to leave the country after he was the target of anti-Semitic slurs and his address was published in a web site linked to the Bahraini government — certainly putting Nonoo, one of only 36 Jews in Bahrain, in an awkward position.

Even more awkward is the fact that Nonoo has experience working in the human rights realm, having helped to establish the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society in 2004 and serving as the group's general-secretary in 2005.

That may in part explain why Nonoo has had little to say about the detention and trial of dozens of doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters — widely condemned by human rights groups — or the hundreds of opposition supporters, including two lawmakers, who've been detained and tried since March.

"In the case of Bahrain, you have a woman here without major diplomatic experience," said Telhami of the University of Maryland. "There was no question she was appointed by the rulers, and she represents a very small community. So it would be very odd — because of the sectarian issue and her being elevated to this position — for her to take a different position than the one she's taken. And while ambassadors do not speak publicly, obviously many of them speak privately. And when they speak privately, there's no question that they defend their governments."

Syria's Moustapha hasn't talked much to the press either, other than a brief comment to the New York Times recently urging dialogue to quell the ongoing violence in Syria. But that hasn't stopped the tech-savvy ambassador from blogging about the unrest, in which government forces have killed an estimated 1,400 civilians in nationwide demonstrations that began in mid-March.

"When faced with extremely distressing situations in the past, I would find solace in various sources. Great works of literature were my first refuge at difficult junctures in my youthful years — particularly the work of Dostoyevsky," wrote Moustapha, an avid blogger for years, though many of his countrymen now struggle to get their opinions online in the wake of a government Internet crackdown.

Moustapha also put up an official message on the embassy website denouncing what he described as superficial media coverage of the "events in Syria underway since March" and justifying the government's response.

"Unfortunately, while the overwhelming majority of Syrians have adopted dialogue as the way forward, a minority view armed uprising as the preferred route. No government in the world, including the United States, would tolerate an armed insurrection, regardless of the motive," the statement reads. "A clear distinction must be made between citizens demanding their legitimate rights versus militants pursuing the bleak path towards destruction and insecurity. Under no terms will Syria tolerate the latter. Our pursuit of far-reaching reforms to realize our vision of a more democratic, just and thriving Syria will continue, regardless of those who would seek to interfere with, or derail, this much-needed course of action."

The website also connects to a stream of news articles selectively backing the government's position and the dangers if it collapses. Similarly, various protests have been held outside the embassy in Washington, although the ambassador has only addressed the crowds at the rallies supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That's not a big surprise given that Moustapha is said to be a close friend of the president and is undoubtedly more keen to highlight Assad's recent outreach and promises of reform than the crackdown his troops have unleashed against protesters.

"The Syrian ambassador in Washington represents a regime that is known for brutality and retribution, and deals very harshly with dissenters," Gnehm told The Diplomat. "People have never forgotten what the father [the late President Hafez al-Assad] did in Hama when they revolted in 1982. You know what would happen to you if you say anything in Washington that's hostile to Damascus? You'd be recalled immediately and be put in prison."

On the other hand, says Gnehm, if Moustapha came out too strongly in defense of the Assad regime — for example, justifying the killing of 10,000 protesters if necessary — "I could at some point see the U.S. government saying that kind of diplomatic activity is unacceptable, and asking for his removal. But he's not going to do that. He's very professional, and if he says anything at all, it would be in diplomatic language."

The simple fact is that most ambassadors' hands are tied, uncertain of how much loyalty to show their home governments, which may or may not be around tomorrow (or in some cases may seek retribution on diplomats who've betrayed them), or even what to say in response to historic events that are unraveling each day and continue to stun the world.

However, Telhami singled out Egypt's ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, praising him for not shying away from the media throughout the entire 18-day protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square that finally dislodged President Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years.

"When Mubarak was in trouble, Shoukry tried to be analytical and push forth his own analysis in a way that was relatively credible," he said. "The ambassador conducted himself reasonably well, under very difficult circumstances, and he never stopped representing his government. Nobody knew what the outcome would be, but he was not an apologist [for the Mubarak regime]. Then when the transition happened, he embraced the change and went on."

Washington consultant Joseph K. Grieboski — who's lived in Israel and has traveled to Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait — said that if he were an Arab ambassador in Washington right now, he'd be all over the media.

"There are truths, half-truths and non-truths being told about each and every one of the Arab countries where public outcry is taking place," said Grieboski, CEO of just consulting, an Alexandria-based international consulting and government relations firm. "It is essential that the ambassadors tell their country's side of the story, be honest about the situation on the ground, and admit where reforms need to take place. If the embassies are not crafting the message or story, someone else is — and more than likely, it will not be in their countries' favor."

From press conferences and Capitol Hill briefings to advertising and social media websites, he said Arab embassies must be far more aggressive than they've been so far.

"If the ambassadors and embassies remain silent, they lose credibility — even the ones of states like Libya or Syria where horrid and repressive measures are in place," said Grieboski. "The American people assume silence in the face of accusations means guilt."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 19, 2014