By Mohamad Bazzi
THE Arab world is jubilant over the popular uprising in Tunisia that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee last week after 27 years in power.
Everyone is wondering whether the example set by Tunisians will spread to other dictatorships in the Middle East. In recent weeks, small protests have erupted in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt over rising food prices, unemployment and government corruption. But if protests take hold in those countries, the security forces will likely use far more violence to suppress dissent than was used in Tunisia.
It is also unclear what kind of political system will emerge from the revolt in Tunisia. If a military strongman takes control as a 'saviour', or if Mr Ben Ali's cronies manage to hold on to power after the chaos subsides, then the prospect of revolutionary change could become less appealing to other Arabs.
But one thing is clear: People in the Middle East have given up any hope that the United States can be a force for change. As the uprising spread in Tunisia, Washington stayed largely silent until the day Mr Ben Ali fled. That was when President Barack Obama issued a statement condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and applauding 'the courage and dignity' of Tunisians. But it was too late: The US-backed dictator was gone, and the Arab world noted another instance where Washington favoured stability over democracy.
The Obama administration inherited a decades-old US policy of supporting autocratic regimes in exchange for political acquiescence. Most governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the 'war on terror' as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.
On Jan 13, a day before Mr Ben Ali's fall, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lectured a group of Arab leaders assembled in Qatar on the danger of their countries 'sinking into the sand' unless they reform their political systems and economies. 'Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever,' she said. 'If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum.'
Mrs Clinton's words appeared prophetic the next day. But she neglected to mention that most of these leaders were US allies who had heard the same rebukes from American officials many times.
In June 2005, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. 'We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,' she declared.
For a brief period, her message resonated in the Arab world. It was five months after Iraqis showed extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon, a popular revolt had helped dislodge years of Syrian military and political domination. At that moment, the US could have encouraged some genuine change in the region.
But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: In late 2005, a small group of Egyptian judges challenged President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. The US stood by silently while Mr Mubarak crushed public protests.
Washington fears that supporting reform in the region would bring Islamist groups to power. Without any space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have the greatest influence through their social service networks. These well-organised groups would likely win any free balloting, so the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections.
[Perhaps. Perhaps the Islamist bogeyman is a consideration. But going around supporting rebellion or revolution is not diplomatic behaviour, but would be considered an act of war.]
But democracy is not just about voting. It is a slow process of promoting individual rights and building up civil society, an independent judiciary and state institutions. These efforts take time and they make a far less glamorous photo op than a quick election.
Mr Obama himself took up the soaring oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated address to the Muslim world in June 2009. Yet he chose to deliver this message in Egypt, where Mr Mubarak has clung to power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow him to imprison thousands of dissidents without trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. His regime receives nearly US$1.8 billion (S$2.3 billion) a year in American assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of US foreign aid after Israel.
Since that speech, Mr Obama's aides have been reluctant to criticise US allies who fall short of the ideals about which the President had spoken so eloquently. The administration has also blocked threats by members of Congress to link future US assistance to reform or improvements in Egypt's human rights record.
With Tunisia's revolution, Mr Obama missed a chance to show the Arab world that he can live up to his lofty rhetoric. He must seize the next opportunity to portray America as a more sympathetic power - a country that sticks up for the little guy and does not tolerate repression.
The writer is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States.
What the US has done is correct. Persuading the govt of the day to be open to democracy, to encourage civil society to grow, to promote political activism. Anything else more than that would be suspect. Expecting more than that is idealistic.]