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Regime vs. protesters: Which will Obama back in Arab world?

It's a tricky moment for the US, as demand for reform spreads in the Arab world from Tunisia and Lebanon to Egypt and Yemen. Obama appears to be taking a dual track of backing the street protesters as well as regimes willing to undertake reforms.

By Staff writer / January 27, 2011

Egyptian protesters flash peace sign as anti-riot policemen surround a protest in Suez, Egypt, Thursday, Jan. 27. In a statement that reveals how the Obama administration sees the growing upheaval in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, 'We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.'

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As street protests and demands for reform spread in the Arab world from Tunisia and Lebanon to Egypt and even Yemen, the US is shifting its policy toward the region, focusing more on the legitimacy of people’s aspirations for democracy and human rights than on the stability of friendly but authoritarian regimes.

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It’s a tricky moment, one the Obama administration appears to be trying to approach with a dual track of supporting the swelling street protests it views as legitimate as well as governments that are willing to make concessions and undergo reforms. In a statement that reveals how the administration sees the growing upheaval, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday, “We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

To that she added: “We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

That two-lane approach is a retooling of the decades-old US policy of encouraging Arab reform while favoring political stability – but with a nod to the sudden urgency of the moment, some experts in the region say,

“There is a shift [in US policy], but there is also continuity, in that there is still this effort to encourage and push these regimes that are their allies to finally accept real reforms,” says Radwan Masmoudi, president of Washington’s Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. “The change is in the urgency. I think the US realizes and is now saying, ‘We need reforms now, not six months from now. This is when the rubber hits the road.’”

President Obama in his State of the Union address Tuesday highlighted the power of Tunisian protesters to banish a despot, saying, “The will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” But that was Tunisia.

Egypt – Arab leader, stalwart US ally, key to Middle East peace and Israel’s security – is another story. Egyptians and experts on Egypt who just days ago said they were confident the regime of President Hosni Mubarak would weather the storm are now not sure. Some expect Friday – with its promise of massive protests and the return of opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei – to be a crucial moment.

The prospect of a Middle East suddenly swept of its aging, closed, and corrupt but Western-friendly regimes is sending chills through capitals from Tel Aviv to Washington. At the same time, some regional experts are urging Mr. Obama to recall history and mind his wishes.

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