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.

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.'

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.

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.

“The administration’s move is a slide toward the unknown,” said Leslie Gelb, an expert in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a Daily Beast blog post. “When President George W. Bush made his push for democracy in Arab lands, he ended up with Hamas terrorists winning a democratic election and ruling the Gaza Strip.”

Even in celebrating the protesters and pressuring governments to open up, the US may be opening doors it has long worked to keep closed, others note. “Washington knows, like Mubarak knows, there’s a substantial risk that if you start the reform, it would only feed the monster,” says Wayne White, a former State Department policy planning official and now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“Washington is well aware of the slippery slope,” he adds, “but the shift we’re seeing may mean they think there’s no way to stop it now.”

Still, the US may yet have a role to play in steering friendly regimes in a direction that avoids chaos, some observers say. “These regimes are so isolated from the people, they have no idea what’s really going on with them, so they need someone to tell them and be very frank with them,” says Mr. Masmoudi, who was born in Tunisia. “[The US] may be the last one who can say, ‘We tell you as a friend, the time for real reform is now…. Nobody wants to see chaos in Egypt.' ”

A weak spot for the US is that it knows little about the opposition movements in these countries, despite years of civil society outreach and efforts billed as democracy promotion. That lack of familiarity is a result of efforts by the ruling regimes, some experts say – in particular efforts to convince the US that the opposition is primarily the Islamist movement, which both the regime and the US distrusted.

“The people in Washington really don’t know the opposition, but it’s not for lack of trying,” says Mr. White, recalling his experiences in various Arab countries. “The problem isn’t a lack of interest, but the barriers these governments put between opposition leaders and foreign governments. They have made the opposition off-limits for us, just as they have for themselves.”

What the Obama administration may learn from the extraordinary events of January 2011 is that a spur-of-the-moment policy shift doesn’t, in the end, make much difference. It’s the years of policy before the events that will have the most impact, some foreign-policy experts say.

“Is the vendor in the street really listening to what Washington has to say? Is the Mubarak regime really focusing on what America is calling for in the way of reforms in the Middle East?” says Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The problem is that the US is seen in much of the region as lagging behind its principles. And that,” he adds, “is not going to be addressed by a sentence in a speech or some words from the secretary of State.”

It may be that all the US can really do is watch, wait, and act on principles it has long espoused. As Dr. Cordesman says, “It’s what we do over time that matters.”

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