How should the U.S. respond to uprisings in the Middle East?
STEVEN HEYDEMANN Vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative
Arab regimes are reeling from the aftershocks of events in Tunisia. Governments in Egypt and Yemen are the focus of mass protests expressing the anger that many Arab citizens feel toward their leaders. Surprises are possible, but it is most likely that the Egyptian and Yemeni regimes will survive these “days of rage.”
After the truncheons have done their work, what are U.S. options? The administration has an extraordinary opportunity to reinvigorate support for democratic reform in the Arab world. For decades, supporters of reform have struggled to make a convincing case that Arab democracy is in America’s interest. Fear of Islam and a strong preference for stability have long trumped arguments about the damage to U.S. interests of supporting authoritarian regimes. The recent uprisings demonstrate just how misguided these calculations have been. U.S. interests are poorly served by regimes that have lost the confidence of their people. Illegitimacy and instability are now linked; the connection provides compelling justification for a more assertive U.S. approach to political reform in the Arab world.
The United States can help the region’s transition to democracy by acknowledging the depth of anger among Arab publics, making explicit the link between U.S. interests and the legitimacy of regimes, and communicating forcefully to our Arab allies that current governments will not overcome the crisis of legitimacy that is driving their citizens into the streets without fundamental political transformation — through processes that are themselves democratic, peaceful and inclusive. Such an approach does not require the isolation or abandonment of current regimes, but it would signal clearly that American interests and Arab democracy are now, finally, aligned.
AARON DAVID MILLER Public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; former Arab-Israeli peace negotiator for the State Department Mr. President, You smartly steered clear of the ideological freedom agenda of your predecessor. And now, in one of history’s crueler ironies, you’re confronted with a homegrown freedom agenda in Tunisia and Egypt and maybe elsewhere, with impact over time that may be far greater than the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you’re smart and lucky, you won’t make an already complicated situation worse, and you might even do some good. Remember:
You can’t control history. The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that thought they could impose their will on small tribes. The changes loosed in the Arab world are primarily driven by local factors, and they’ll have to play themselves out.
Don’t abandon your friends. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be an authoritarian, but since 1981 your predecessors and you have deemed him vital to American interests. Be careful what kind of signals you send until you have a much better sense of who or what will come after him. The worst outcome of Egyptian unrest would be a Mubarak who crushes the opposition and resents the United States because he believes that you wanted him on the next flight to Paris.
This will be a long movie. It’s driven by deepseated divisions in the Arab and Muslim world, first between the haves and have-nots over economic resources and second between those who can participate in governing their societies and those who cannot. You will need a strategy, but don’t rush to come up with one; it will probably be wrong. For now, loudly proclaim the importance of American values such as respect for human rights, peaceful demonstrations, rule of law, good governance. But keep your distance until you have a much greater sense of where these changes are headed.
HUSSEIN AGHA and ROBERT MALLEY Agha is senior associate member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and was special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001
Decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East are coming back to haunt Washington. As a result, the United States now faces a battle it cannot win.
To continue supporting unpopular rulers would further alienate those who are most likely to assume power in the future. Openly siding with the street would strain ties with regimes that might survive the unrest and whose help the United States still needs; signal to America’s remaining friends that its support is fickle; precipitate the rise of forces hostile to U.S. interests; and do little to sway demonstrators who will see in America’s midnight conversion hypocrisy and opportunism.
Washington can cut its losses and begin turning the page in its relations with the Arab world. That will have to wait. For now, it means assuming a low profile and resisting the temptation to become part of the story. That hardly is an exciting agenda, but the United States could do far worse than do very little.
MARINA OTTAWAY Director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Washington’s reaction to the growing unrest will have almost no impact on what happens in the Arab world, which will be determined by domestic factors — the protesters’ determination, the governments’ response, the willingness of
police and army units to use force against demonstrators. Protesters, who view the United States as the historical prop for Arab authoritarian regimes, will not heed Washington’s calls to avoid violence. And regimes that have been authoritarian for decades will not suddenly see the wisdom of liberalization because of statements from Washington.
But what the United States says affects its standing in the region. The Obama administration’s attempt to strike a balance between not offending incumbent regimes and refurbishing its image by sending a message that Washington wants reforms is failing — messages are circulating on the Internet to the effect that the United States is once again supporting authoritarianism. Washington must get off the fence and choose whether it wants to support democracy, and thus be on the side of Arab publics enraged by decades of repression, or whether it wants to continue supporting regimes that have been repressive for decades in the name of ill-defined strategic interests. It cannot do both.
ANDREW ALBERTSON Executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy from 2007 to 2010
The Obama administration has begun taking many of the right steps already. Aware of the dangers for U.S. interests posed by governments that resist democratic participation even as their people become more educated, affluent and connected to the outside world, it has repeatedly raised with Arab leaders the need for comprehensive reforms. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presciently warned regional foreign ministers two weeks ago, “ 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.”
In the wake of Friday’s events in Egypt, the administration needs to double down on its call for political reforms across the region. In Tunisia and Egypt, the administration should seize the opportunity to support full-scale transitions to democracy. New subsidies or cabinet shuffles aren’t enough. What happened on the streets of Cairo was not a bread riot but a legitimacy riot. And forceful crackdowns represent a big roll of the dice — for regimes and for Washington, to the extent that the United States is perceived to be complicit in such violence.
People in the region want to be citizens — protagonists in their national political life, rather than subjects who passively take what the government gives. They want an end to ministries, parties and police forces that operate above the law and foster endemic corruption. The United States should quickly press allies such as Yemen, Jordan and Morocco to drop constraints on political participation, convene broad political dialogues, and place the highest premium on transparent and effective governance. The best guarantee of stability is participation, pluralism and progress.
Protesters standing on top of army vehicles in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday.