Emad Shahin: Obama Still Doesn’t Know What To Do About Arab Autocrats
President Obama, in his State of the Union address this week, assured Tunisians and the people of the Middle East of America’s support of their democratic aspirations. Yet, on her statement on the same day on the popular protests in Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Hosni Mubarak’s government as “stable” and said it was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” This apparent contradiction clearly demonstrates that when it comes to aspiration of democratic changes in the Arab world, the U.S. administration is completely out of touch with reality.
The reality is that Mubarak’s government seems stable thanks only to massive repression, his disempowering of civil society, and the financial and security support of his Western allies. This is not a different reality from the one shared by other U.S. allies in the region, such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Yemen, all of which are now challenged by massive demonstrations.
It is clear that the United States has been taken by surprise by the extent of the popular anger. To catch up with the quickly unfolding events, it has been sending mixed messages to close allies and their angry populations alike. With rhetoric oscillating between pragmatic realism and Jeffersonian idealism, the Obama administration has expressed willingness to help the regimes carry out necessary reforms; urged all parties to refrain from violence; and acknowledge the “universal” rights of the people. The real story is that the United States, and, for that matter the European Union, is still conducting business as usual and wants to see social, economic, and political reform take place from within the existing regime.
But how about what the people want? And can the United States afford to ignore, or underestimate the message these angry citizens are trying to send? The people of the region are fed up with decades of repression, corruption, and humiliation. Their demands are clear: a total break with an authoritarian past and a new beginning of freedom, social justice, and dignity.
The Obama administration needs to realize that it cannot thread the needle. The status quo is hard — if not impossible — to sustain. These protests are unprecedented in intensity and in the unyielding nature of their agenda. Driven by frustrated youth, they involve a wider swath of society and embrace economic and political goals that cannot easily be separated, as in past protests.
U.S. support for Middle East dictators has spawned deep anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, and chaotic Iraq and Afghanistan hardly present an attractive model. The best thing the United States can do now is to back off and let the peoples of the region chart their own course. Shoring up repressive rulers and denying citizens their legitimate democratic rights out of fear of change or an Islamist takeover will no longer work, if it ever did. The popular uprisings across the Arab world go beyond ideology and religion. They are about freedom, social justice and democracy. That’s what America is supposed to stand for. Why should the Middle East be any different?
Emad Shahin is the Henry R. Luce associate professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame.
This piece was originally published in Foreign Policy