Tunisia, Egypt, Arab World Need Bold U.S. Support for Democracy, Not Mixed Messages

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In a historic first for the Arab world, Tunisians toppled their longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on Jan. 14 after nearly a month of popular revolt. Drawing inspiration from Tunisia, an unprecedented wave of protests and rioting has spread to Algeria, Libya, Jordan, and Egypt. With rising unemployment, restless youth, and aging, ailing leaders, it looks as if the region is in for a winter, spring, and summer of discontent. The fall of what seemed one of the most stable Arab regimes has the world wondering who might be next.

It is also worth wondering how Western powers, particularly the United States, will react. The faulty assumptions of U.S. policy – that stability can be purchased at the cost of freedom – have been laid bare. With the upsurge in popular, possibly revolutionary anger in the Middle East, this is the time to reconsider failed approaches and advance a bold policy supporting the political changes already well underway.

Most American policymakers understand that Arab regimes will fall – eventually – but no one thought it would happen under their watch. The United States, preoccupied with more important matters, such as investing in a floundering Middle East peace process, has once again found itself in the weak position of reacting to, rather than influencing, key regional developments. Those hoping for a policy “reorientation,” in the wake of Tunisia, are likely to be disappointed. The initial signs are not encouraging.

U.S. support of authoritarian Arab governments

On Jan. 25, Egypt arguably saw, according to some estimates, the largest pro-democracy protests in its history. The “day of revolution” exceeded all expectations, signaling that surprises are becoming the Arab norm. In that context, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that “our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable” seemed oddly retro and uncannily similar to what President Jimmy Carter said about the Shah’s Iran in 1977.

President Obama has also weighed in, but more by what he chose not to say. On Jan. 18, he phoned his Egyptian counterpart, President Hosni Mubarak. They discussed a number of issues, including Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. They did not, however, discuss the need for political reform in Egypt.

The United States has backed its rhetoric, or lack of it, with action. On Jan. 12, more than three weeks into the Tunisia uprising – and after protests had spread across the region – the State Department granted $100 million in new funding to the Jordanian government to boost employment and strengthen the health and education sectors. Presumably, this will help the Kingdom diffuse popular anger over worsening economic conditions.

These actions have a clear intent – to protect the stability of a state perceived as strategically vital to US interests.

For at least three decades, America’s relationship with the Arab world has been defined along these lines. The State Department’s institutional knowledge and contacts in the region are all oriented around the regimes in power, rather than their oppositions. (In many cases, the United States has no real relationship with the latter.)

This is to say nothing of the Defense Department, military, and CIA, which enjoy extensive security ties with many of the governments in question. For example, U.S. military assistance to Egypt – at $1.3 billion – is more than six times the amount of economic aid.

In short, America’s fundamental orientation in the Middle East is one of over-reliance on the very regimes whose stability looks increasingly compromised.

Hard to shift gears now

Considering the amount of resources invested in the Arab authoritarian order, it will be challenging for policymakers to shift gears, even if they now feel they should. What makes it more difficult is that, today, Washington lacks a strong, coherent pro-democracy constituency at home.

While Democrats have unfortunately, but understandably, distanced themselves from democracy promotion abroad, it is unclear why neoconservatives have not been more vocal in support of these new stirrings of change. Certainly the Republican agenda in Congress is now largely colored by the influence of the domestic-focused tea party, with a push to rein in spending and foreign commitments. But though they have lost clout, neoconservatives are still influential within Republican ranks.

Yet until the final days of the Tunisia uprising, they, like the Obama administration, were relatively quiet.

Interestingly, when neoconservatives did finally take to hailing Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” warnings of growing Islamist influence were often interspersed with democratic optimism. The exiled Islamist leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was planning his return to Tunis, and Islamists, after decades of near total suppression, were ripe for resurgence. This is the same old US dilemma: wanting democracy but not necessarily its outcomes. (And in this case, the outcomes in Tunisia and the rest of the region are likely to make Americans uncomfortable.)

Democratic changes need U.S. support

Some might argue that this is not about America, but about Tunisians fighting for Tunisia and Egyptians fighting for Egypt. Accordingly, Obama, the neoconservatives, and anyone else should just “stay out of it.” But the notion of democratic transitions as organic and homegrown – a post-Bush platitude – while technically true, is also misleading. Democratic transitions are incredibly difficult. But they are even more difficult without the support of the international community.

Western assistance can sometimes be decisive, as it was during the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe. Youth movements like Otpor in Serbia and Pora in Ukraine received millions of dollars, extensive technical assistance, and moral support from Western governments.

The world in 2011: Trends and events to watch in every region

This support for democracy would not have happened without the agitation of activists and policymakers in Washington who shared an ideological commitment to the vigorous support of democracy abroad. Sometimes, political will, more than anything else, can have a dramatic impact in forcing stagnant U.S. policies in a new direction.

America doesn’t need neoconservatives. What it does need is a diverse constituency, on both the left and right, committed to human rights and democracy as an animating force in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps now more than ever, Arab democracy needs advocates. Oddly, they’ve become more difficult to find.