The Arab World Shakes

The dramatic scenes from Tunis, Sana’a and especially Cairo continue to exhilarate observers across the globe. These images of men, women and children braving riot police, tear gas and decades of authoritarianism to seize their economic, social and political futures point to what seemed impossible a mere month ago: the tumbling of decades-long corrupt and despotic regimes. As over a million Egyptians now peacefully and jubilantly descend on Tahrir, or Liberation, Square in downtown Cairo to demand the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, it is apparent that history is unfolding before our eyes.

Excitement and guarded optimism is appropriate, although this must not preclude caution and nuanced analysis. For example, while it may be tempting to view these events in the Arab world as a unified wave of democratic transformation, the reality is that they are taking place in diverse contexts with differing histories, singular challenges and opportunities, and distinct demands from the protesters, as well as varying degrees of leverage for the leaders to respond to their citizenry.

Yet despite these important differences, for the United States, one reality is patently clear: Pandora’s Box has been opened. A quarter century of American foreign policy designed to preserve the façade of stability in the Arab world is no longer sustainable.

This month’s events are the latest and most damning pieces of evidence that these tactics are failing, particularly as the key sites of unrest – Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Tunisia – are all benefactors of U.S. military assistance.

How the Obama Administration reacts now is critical. In a region where terrorism and war remain omnipresent possibilities, how can the Administration both mitigate real security threats, which depends on these regimes’ cooperation, and champion the people’s legitimate demands, which may ultimately lead to the regimes toppling?

Recognize the crises of political authority and support long-term stability over short-term security.

U.S. policy in the Arab world depends on alliances with unpopular regimes. For decades, American administrations have employed quick-fix approaches to contain immediate security threats through military aid or capacity-building for anemic institutions. The Obama Administration, however, can no longer afford to prop up political conditions that are inherently unstable and that intensify the potential for enduring violence and chaos.

American interventions must account for the core challenge in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen: the need for substantial reform in political architecture. Throughout the region, cadres of elites surrounding the head-of-state hold an unyielding grip on their countries’ political, military and commercial interests. It is these entrenched and interconnected systems of patronage, corruption and repression that protesters seek to dismantle. While the scale of the demonstrations may be unprecedented, the frustration is not, nor is people’s recognition that their futures have been high-jacked by these oppressive systems.

American governments have consistently overlooked these profound crises of political authority, prioritizing temporary security over a sustainable stability that requires greater political imagination and audacity. Although economic and military approaches are imperative, they cannot substitute for structural ones. At best, these will fail to adequately respond to the context of instability; at worse, overly centralized approaches that focus on empowering the central government without promise for reform could further descend the region into political and social upheaval.

Treat the demonstrations as an opportunity rather than a threat and participate in the transition of these despotic states into stable democracies.

To confront the sundry of political crises in the Arab world, the Obama Administration must listen to the deafening song of discontent and act as an ally in the people’s legitimate demands for democracy and self-determination. Rather than simply reacting to the transformations that will inevitably follow, it should proactively – though cautiously –support change.

This necessitates more than asking the detested and feckless inner circles of leadership to seek reform on their terms. It will require robust engagement with a broad spectrum of political, religious, economic and civil society leaders, as well as political allies, to achieve effective durable solutions and transition these authoritarian regimes to responsive democracies.

In Egypt, that would mean supporting a stable transitional government – led by Nobel laureate and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed Elbaradei, current Vice President Omar Suleiman, or another figure acceptable to the Egyptian people – that can guide the country through a meaningful process of reform and elections in the coming months.

A fundamental question is the role of Islamist groups in the recent protests and their potential fallout. In Tunisia, where politically active Islamic leaders were often jailed or exiled, these groups contributed little to the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had remained aloof until Friday’s momentous protests, joining an opposition coalition with Elbaradei and others.

This is not to diminish the undeniable role of Islam in both motivating individual protesters and unifying the masses, nor to discount its potential political reemergence at a later point. However, the relative inconspicuousness of Islamist groups, and complete irrelevance of jihadist movements, in pushing these regimes to the brink has been an unanticipated side-story. It defies the prevailing wisdom in some policy circles that political transformation in the Arab world will necessarily lead to some form of Islamic revolution, a fallacious view that has in large part driven American support for these repressive regimes.

It would behoove the U.S. to constructively support this process of change and democratic transition, rather than to ignore it. Is there a realistic alternative? Even if this latest round of mass protests does not further topple regimes (although with the Egyptian army apparently siding with the demonstrators, President Mubarak’s days are likely numbered), corrupt and authoritarian leaders like Mubarak will not live forever. Looking back to another seminal moment in Middle East history, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, this should have taught American policymakers that presumed allies are not immortal and that alienating large segments of populations can have devastating repercussions.

By siding with detested governments in 2011, implicitly or explicitly, the Obama Administration risks turning popular movements for change against the U.S. That is quite a gamble.

Transform engrained anti-American narratives and side with the people.

The Administration has been granted a singular opportunity to transform deep-rooted regional narratives that associate American power with dictatorship and repression. Given the copious amounts of American security assistance to the regimes in Egypt ($1.5 billion annually) and Yemen (nearly $175 million in 2010) in particular, even a “neutral” position like calling for Mubarak to dialogue with the protestors and heed calls for reform may be perceived as the U.S. backing its ally. The Egyptian demonstrators, some of whom have begun to chant “Mubarak, you coward, you agent of the United States,” certainly recognize the link between American aid and their despot’s iron fist. Images of riot police using tear gas canisters that bear the label “Made in U.S.A,” coupled with American diplomats’ equivocation, only reinforce this association.

The tide has irrevocably turned, and the United States must now back the people. If the U.S. can wisely and prudently support these courageous protesters to achieve their dreams for democracy, freedom and dignity, it will demonstrate to the region and world its “unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” President Obama’s 2009 address to the broader Muslim world, appropriately given in Cairo, certainly rings true today.

Change is afoot. And to think that it all started with a twenty-six year old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire to protest the humiliating confiscation of his fruits and vegetables.

JAMES R. KING is an independent analyst, specializing in Zaydism, Yemen and the broader Middle East. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, King lived in Yemen in 2007 as part of an American Institute for Yemeni Studies fellowship, where he conducted interviews with leading Zaydi scholars on the Zaydi community in Yemen. This research was published as “Zaydis in a Post-Zaydi Yemen: ‘Ulama Reactions to Zaydism’s Marginalization in the Republic of Yemen.”