People who view the Mideast uprisings as an “Arab Spring” are missing the broader significance of a global movement, U.S. Sen. John McCain said Aug. 29, 2011, at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona.
“I don’t think Arab Spring is the right name for it,” McCain said. “It obviously has spread throughout the Arab world and is still going on. But I would argue that it’s going on all over the world, not just in the Arab world.”
McCain said the only comparable time in recent history might be the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union. “We live in a time when we should be most excited,” he said. “Never in history have so many hundreds of millions of people had an opportunity to experience freedom and democracy and an observance of human rights.”
McCain spoke for about 15 minutes on world affairs and then fielded questions from an audience of about 350 incoming Thunderbird students. Afterward the audience sang happy birthday to the Arizona delegate, who was celebrating his 75th birthday.
While final outcomes remain uncertain, McCain expressed general optimism about the transformation he sees spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. He also mentioned movements in Russia, China, India, Europe and even the United States.
“There are countries like China that are very uneasy right now, that use hundreds of police to crack down on hundreds of demonstrators,” McCain said. Hooliganism and extremism have marred some demonstrations, but McCain said the general movement supports many of the same human rights articulated by the U.S. founders.
“That’s what is being asserted today in all places all over the world,” McCain said, “and not just in the Arab world.”
He said the transformation to democracy will be messy and slow in many places as people learn how to govern themselves. “Some countries will take two steps forward and one step back,” he said, “and sometimes one step forward and two steps back.”
The Zuckerberg factor
One force that will help reformers maintain momentum will come from social media, a tool that has helped weaker members of society to organize protests and spread dissent. McCain said he met one revolutionary leader in Egypt who boasted that he could fill a public square with 300,000 protesters within four hours using the power of social media.
McCain described another conversation with a young woman in Tunisia. “Do you know who our national hero is?” she said. “Mark Zuckerberg.”
McCain agreed that the Facebook founder has played a huge role in connecting people and fueling the freedom movement. He said the bigger challenge for reformers will be delivering results once they gain power.
In Libya, for example, the rebels closing in on ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi must quickly confront the basic needs of people left without food, water and electricity. “A lot of the success or failure of the rebels, the TNC, will be related to their ability to get goods and services to the people of Libya as quickly as possible,” McCain said, referring to the Transitional National Council.
Another challenge will involve fending off extremist organizations and other powerful interests that threaten to exploit the freedom movement for their own purposes.
McCain said the Muslim Brotherhood, an established political opposition group in the Arab world, already has asserted itself in Egypt. “We have been worried about the way a lot of things are being handled in Egypt,” he said. “Some of the young people are being excluded from some of the deliberations and processes of moving forward.”
McCain said the Egyptian struggle is key because of the weight the country carries throughout the region. “Egypt is the heart and soul of the Arab world,” he said. “What happens in Egypt will have a profound effect on what happens in these surrounding countries.”
If the Muslim Brotherhood emerges as the dominant voice in Egypt, McCain said “it won’t be the first revolution in this part of the world that has been hijacked by Muslim extremists.”
He said many people behind the pro-democracy movement understand the importance of pressing forward after the initial battles have been won. “It’s not the first election that we worry about,” one Tunisian told McCain during his visit to North Africa. “It’s the second election.”
War weary America
McCain said many U.S. observers watch the uprisings around the world with little desire to get involved.
“We have gone through a rather tumultuous time with Iraq and Afghanistan, and you will not see the United States of America anytime soon engage in a land war anywhere in the world,” McCain said. “Americans are war weary. Americans are very tired. And Americans are very angry.”
McCain said he understands the frustrations he hears from his constituents, and he agrees that the United States should not impose its values on other nations. But he said the United States should help when asked.
“It is in America’s interest and the world’s interest to see a peaceful transition to democratic governments,” he said.
John McCain at Thunderbird: Watch the video on YouTube (13:13)