Is the United States on the Side of Mideast Democracy?

Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute

January 31, 2011

During the past week, the Middle East has been rocked by two separate political earthquakes that have shaken the foundations of U.S. policy in the region

At the very moment Al Jazeera was rolling out its cache of hundreds of leaked Palestinian documents detailing controversial concessions to Israel, Egypt’s streets erupted in massive protests demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Yet, these two developments are linked by more than just timing. Although the controversy over the leaked “Palestine Papers” has since been overtaken by the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt, both events highlight the failure of two crucial and interconnected components of U.S. Middle East policy: the need for democratic reform and the elusive pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace.

As the Arab world’s largest and most important U.S. ally, Egypt now lies at the nexus of both of these critical processes.

In addition to its centrality to the peace process as a key mediator between Israelis and Palestinians, Egypt has now also become the focal point for the democratic aspirations of people across the Middle East and beyond.

In his famous Cairo speech of June 2009, President Barack Obama’s pledge to support governments “that reflect the will of the people” and to personally pursue Arab-Israeli peace “with all the patience and dedication that the task requires” inspired millions of Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. Two years into his term, however, the administration has little to show for its grandiose rhetoric.

For all its talk of new beginnings, the Obama administration has remained remarkably faithful to the largely outdated policy formulas and flawed political assumptions that prevailed under his predecessors — and with predictable results. Whatever the Palestine Papers might reveal about the Palestinian leadership’s conduct in the negotiations, they say far more about the United States and its handling of the process.

Among other things, the documents show how the Palestinians’ repeated pleadings for an end to Israeli settlement expansion were typically met with either indifference or exasperation by U.S. officials.

In contrast to the almost limitless deference shown to Israeli demands and internal politics, U.S. officials, whether under Obama or George W. Bush, show remarkably little patience for the political needs and internal pressures of the Palestinians — who, after all, have already endured a civil war and a debilitating political schism.

After a number of missteps and several abortive attempts to relaunch negotiations, including the much-feted and ill-fated launching of direct negotiations in September, the administration has failed to advance the process in any meaningful way.

At the same time, the administration’s support for Arabs’ democratic aspirations remains largely rhetorical in nature and continues to be a second-tier priority in terms of political and material investment. This has been demonstrated by the unprecedented street protests in Egypt, which came on the heels of a similar revolt in Tunisia and a wave of anti-government protests in several other Arab states.

In Egypt and Tunisia, popular uprisings calling for the ouster of two deeply entrenched, American-backed autocratic rulers caught the administration entirely off guard, forcing it to improvise as events were unfolding.

More crucially, they have highlighted America’s deep-seated ambivalence toward genuine democratic reform in the Middle East and the problematic nature of continuing to support autocratic governments that are increasingly at odds with their people.

Ordinary Arabs have not failed to take note of Washington’s rather measured tone on behalf of demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia against their leaders, both stalwart U.S. allies, particularly when compared with its far more vociferous support for Iranian protesters in the latter half of 2009 against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The desire for genuine democratic reform and for a just resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict are perhaps the two most pressing demands of Arabs across the region. Likewise, the absence of progress on both of these have helped to fuel anti-American sentiment and extremism throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Rightly or wrongly, a majority of Arabs across the region, both Muslims and Christians alike, have come to view the United States as an obstacle to, rather than a champion of, their aspirations.

Not only has the Obama administration failed to make good on its promises to promote peace and democracy, the ever-widening gap between the principles to which it said it would adhere and its actual conduct on the ground has eroded its credibility throughout the region at an alarming rate.

A recent poll by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution found that the proportion of Arabs who were discouraged by Obama’s performance increased sharply from 15% in 2009 to 63% in 2010. Although most of the decline in confidence can be attributed to Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the gap is likely to grow wider as a result of missteps on both fronts.

While it is too early to tell whether the Palestinian leadership can withstand the fallout from the recent leaks or whether the Egyptian regime will survive the current uprising, what is clear is that the stakes have never been higher for United States as well as for the entire region.

Without a serious rethink of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including a grand strategy for genuine democratic reform and a more balanced handling of the peace process, the United States risks permanently damaging its long-term interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds and ending up on the wrong side of history.