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Opinion

Tunisia, Egypt, Arab world need bold US support for democracy, not mixed messages

The Tunisia uprising exposed the faulty assumption of US policy in the Middle East – that stability can be bought at the cost of freedom. Even as the domestic political climate pulls Obama away from foreign involvement, US support for democracy in the Arab world is more important than ever.

By Shadi Hamid / January 26, 2011



Doha, Qatar

In a historic first for the Arab world, Tunisians toppled their longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on Jan. 14 after nearly a month of popular revolt. Drawing inspiration from Tunisia, an unprecedented wave of protests and rioting has spread to Algeria, Libya, Jordan, and Egypt. With rising unemployment, restless youth, and aging, ailing leaders, it looks as if the region is in for a winter, spring, and summer of discontent. The fall of what seemed one of the most stable Arab regimes has the world wondering who might be next.

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It is also worth wondering how Western powers, particularly the United States, will react. The faulty assumptions of US policy – that stability can be purchased at the cost of freedom – have been laid bare. With the upsurge in popular, possibly revolutionary anger in the Middle East, this is the time to reconsider failed approaches and advance a bold policy supporting the political changes already well underway.

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

Most American policymakers understand that Arab regimes will fall – eventually – but no one thought it would happen under their watch. The US, preoccupied with more important matters, such as investing in a floundering Middle East peace process, has once again found itself in the weak position of reacting to, rather than influencing, key regional developments. Those hoping for a policy “reorientation,” in the wake of Tunisia, are likely to be disappointed. The initial signs are not encouraging.

US support of authoritarian Arab governments

On Jan. 25, Egypt arguably saw, according to some estimates, the largest pro-democracy protests in its history. The “day of revolution” exceeded all expectations, signaling that surprises are becoming the Arab norm. In that context, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable” seemed oddly retro and uncannily similar to what President Jimmy Carter said about the Shah’s Iran in 1977.

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