US risks missing opportunity to play leading role in Middle East transition

The transition to a democratic government after the fall in January of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali is stalling. (File photo)
The transition to a democratic government after the fall in January of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali is stalling. (File photo)
The window of opportunity to throw off the yoke of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa and reposition the United States as a force that promotes democracy and freedom is closing six months into the popular revolt that is sweeping the region.

The transition to a democratic government after the fall in January of President Zine Abedine Ben Ali is stalling. Protesters have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to push for political reform and economic opportunity five months to the day some of the harshest clashes with police and supporters of President Hosni Mubarak that led two weeks later to Mr. Mubarak stepping down after 30 years in office.
The ever more evident difficulty in the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule is compounded by the fact that traditional forces are in the ascendancy while the youth activists who initiated the revolt are losing ground. The ascendancy of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has persuaded the Obama administration to engage in a dialogue in a bid to forge relations with all major political players.

While that is a smart move, it is insufficient for the Obama administration to capitalize on the fact that opposition to US policies has not factored in the revolts that toppled the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and have wracked Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

It also doesn’t compensate for the fact that the revolt has already rewritten the geopolitical map of the Middle East and North Africa from Washington’s perspective. Gone are the days where the United States could build on Egypt and Saudi Arabia as cornerstone. For the United States to exploit the opportunity in the changing priorities of what was once commonly described as the Arab street and help the region move forward, Mr. Obama has to start putting his money where his mouth is.

In a speech in May designed to ally the United States with protesters on the streets of Arab capitals and to shift policy away from one that emphasized stability at the price of democracy and freedom, Mr. Obama promised that he would employ all the “diplomatic, economic and strategic tools” available to his administration to promote reform and support transition to democracy.

Several weeks later he joined leaders of the G-8 countries in pledging economic support and debt relief to Arab nations embarking on a road of transition and to back $20 billion in available lending from international development banks.

Those were important gestures, but there has yet to be a follow-up. They position the United States to get in front of the cart, but don’t put it there. To ensure that his administration is not continuously trying to keep up with fast moving events, Mr. Obama has to start acting; words alone are no longer sufficient. Mr. Obama has created expectations.

Failure to fulfill those expectations risks sparking disappointment and disillusionment.

To be sure, meeting those expectations takes time and is tough for a country that is still struggling to put a severe recession behind, is burdened by debt and split along partisan lines on multiple issues.

Nonetheless, there are things Mr. Obama could do that would allow the United States to start shaping rather than reacting to events. In doing so, he could build on the widely acclaimed Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) started by his predecessor, George W. Bush, by increasing funding for MEPI grants to and support for private groups in the Middle East and North Africa that work to strengthen civil society, empower women and youth, encourage economic reform, and promote democratic change.

Some of the groups funded by MEPI include Syria’s Movement for Justice and Development, which operates a satellite TV channel that has been broadcasting anti-government programs for the past two years. The channel has been a major conduit in breaking the news blackout on independent reporting on the brutal crackdown on protesters that Syrian authorities have tried to impose.

Mr. Obama could further appoint a special representative for democratic reform in the Middle East and North Africa, much like he did on other major foreign policy issues like Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such an appointment would signal the importance Mr. Obama attributes to the issue.

Mr. Obama came to office insisting, “Yes, we can.” The time has come to move to, “Yes, we do.”


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