After Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, what comes next?
Pro-democracy warriors in Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia push through barriers of fear only to find a constellation of needs, demands, and problems on the other side.
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"This is what happens in all revolutions: Great expectations are followed by disappointment and disillusion," says the Qatar-based analyst Hamid. Democratic euphoria can have authoritarian reversals, he warns: "Egyptians and Tunisians have to be vigilant ... that the military ... respects the demands of the people."Skip to next paragraph
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But who is to be entrusted by "the people" with accurately reading and satisfying every demand? Leadership, and who has the right to assume such a role, is wide open in the Arab revolts. In Egypt, for example, is it the well-known global bureaucrat Mohamed ElBaradei, who led the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency for years, but who was filmed during the protests being interviewed in plush gardens while antiregime activists were being killed in the streets during clashes? Could it be popular former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, who says he will run for president? Or the Google executive imprisoned by the regime who, upon his release, galvanized the protesters at a critical time? Or is leadership to be found in the "Coalition of Young Revolutionaries" which gave a list of demands to Egypt's military council in late February – several of them acted upon?
Democratic episodes are not unheard-of in the Arab world, and have generated their share of heart-stopping, tear-jerking excitement.
While Iraq has had the most recent experiences (despite unsatisfactory results for many), similar enthusiasm could be found in Algeria during the 1991 elections – the first multiparty vote since independence in 1962. The Islamic Salvation Front swept the first round, prompting a military coup supported by Western nations, which resulted in a radicalization of Islamists and vicious civil war.
In 2006, Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections fair and square, only to have the United States and European nations – along with Israel – refuse to accept the result, and impose sanctions to prevent Hamas from ruling.
"It's funny to hear senior Western officials wax rhetorical about [today's] emerging democratic movement in the region, when in fact they were the ones working against it for so long," says Hamid from Brookings.
Algeria "could have been a promising model" for the region, and American dismissal of the Hamas victory was "another example of the US wanting democracy, but not wanting its outcomes," adds Hamid. "This has been America's dilemma in the region for decades. And I think we are finally getting to a point that we can solve it."
But there's anger in the Arab street about US policies still in the way – such as blanket support for Israel, the Iraq invasion, and support for undemocratic regimes.
President Obama said during a landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009 that he wanted to transform that anger and seek a "new beginning" based on "mutual respect" between the US and Muslims around the world.