An un­cer­tain Mid­dle East

What the United States can do to shape the con­se­quences of Tu­nisia’s revo­lu­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION -

AWEEK AF­TER Tu­nisia’s pop­u­lar revo­lu­tion, the coun­try’s di­rec­tion re­mains far from set­tled — and un­rest in its Arab neigh­bors is ris­ing. Seven peo­ple in Al­ge­ria and nine in Egypt have set them­selves on fire, or at­tempted to, in im­i­ta­tion of the des­per­ate man who trig­gered Tu­nisia’s up­ris­ing. There were mass anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tions in Jor­dan on Fri­day, and Egypt’s op­po­si­tion has called one for Tues­day. In Tu­nis pro­test­ers con­tinue to march, de­mand­ing that for­mer govern­ment min­is­ters serv­ing in an in­terim govern­ment step down. That ad­min­is­tra­tion has freed po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and de­clared an end to cen­sor­ship, but it has not yet agreed on a clear po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.

This re­mains a moment of great op­por­tu­nity in the Mid­dle East but also of dan­ger. Tu­nisia could con­ceiv­ably be­come the first Arab au­toc­racy to carry out a largely peace­ful tran­si­tion to gen­uine democ­racy, fol­low­ing in the path of for­mer dic­ta­tor­ships in Europe and Asia. Or, like some for­mer Soviet re­publics, it could lapse back into cor­rupt authoritarianism. Egypt, Jor­dan and other Arab states could be­gin to open their po­lit­i­cal sys­tems to sec­u­lar demo­cratic par­ties and civil so­ci­ety groups— or they could con­tinue to re­press or seek to buy off op­po­nents, leav­ing Is­lamist move­ments as their only se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion.

The United States and its al­lies in Europe could have con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence on these out­comes. But so far their poli­cies ap­pear adrift. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton de­liv­ered a speech this month that cor­rectly di­ag­nosed “cor­rupt in­sti­tu­tions and a stag­nant po­lit­i­cal or­der.” She called for “po­lit­i­cal re­forms that will cre­ate the space young peo­ple are de­mand­ing, to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic af­fairs and have a mean­ing­ful role in the de­ci­sions that shape their lives.” But what does that mean? Ms. Clin­ton didn’t men­tion elec­tions or democ­racy. When Pres­i­dent Obama called Egypt’s Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak on Tues­day, he said that the United States sup­ported “free and fair elec­tions in Tu­nisia,” but he didn’t dis­cuss Mr. Mubarak’s own plan to hold an bla­tantly un­free pres­i­den­tial “elec­tion” this year. Nor is it clear what the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to do to pro­mote free elec­tions in Tu­nisia, other than mak­ing pub­lic state­ments.

This sit­u­a­tion de­mands a re­shap­ing and an in­vig­o­ra­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Mid­dle East pol­icy. An im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity should be steps that en­cour­age Tu­nisia’s in­terim au­thor­i­ties to em­brace gen­uine democ­racy. This must be done di­plo­mat­i­cally, as Tu­nisians are sus­pi­cious of Western gov­ern­ments that sup­ported the for­mer dic­ta­tor­ship. But the United States and Europe can make clear that a demo­cratic Tu­nisia will be re­warded with gen­er­ous aid and trade pro­grams, while those who seek to reim­pose au­toc­racy will be sanc­tioned. It can also of­fer tech­ni­cal ad­vice to emerg­ing demo­cratic forces and in­sist on in­ter­na­tional mon­i­tor­ing of any elec­tions.

In Egypt and other parts of the re­gion, the ad­min­is­tra­tion should be press­ing for tan­gi­ble steps to open the po­lit­i­cal space that Ms. Clin­ton spoke of. That means al­low­ing the free for­ma­tion of sec­u­lar po­lit­i­cal par­ties, re­mov­ing re­stric­tions on civil so­ci­ety groups and al­low­ing peace­ful pub­lic assem­bly. If nec­es­sary, the ad­min­is­tra­tion — or Congress — should link con­tin­ued mil­i­tary and other for­eign aid to such steps. The per­ils of the Mid­dle East’s au­to­cratic sta­sis have now been vividly demon­strated. Why would the United States con­tinue to fund that stag­nant sta­tus quo?

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