In the traditionally stagnant Arab world, events have moved at lightning speed in recent days. The unexpected revolt against the dictator Ben Ali in Tunisia, ignited by the self-immolation of one disaffected young man, has led to region-wide protests by citizens fed up with their own repressive leaders. Now, the area's most populous nation and most significant power, Egypt, is ablaze in revolution, and the 30-year-plus reign of aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak is on the brink.
Official U.S. reaction to the plight of key American ally Mubarak appears to be slowly adapting. Only a few days ago, Vice President Joe Biden rejected the notion that the Egyptian leader was a dictator, and his comments about the aims of the protests were lukewarm at best. This morning, in a sign that the Obama administration's position was evolving as Mubarak's position has weakened, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton spoke of "an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people", though no calls were made for Mubarak to step down.
As Egypt's police state falls into a state of chaos, the U.S. undoubtedly has a critical role to play. Although Mubarak has been aligned with American interests in the region, we cannot afford to be on the wrong side of the mass populist sentiment in the Arab world on this issue. We are witnessing a struggle to establish self-determination and democratic values, ideals that Americans cherish and ostensibly seek to promote--our allegiance here should be obvious.
The uncertainty of how this situation will play out is understandably worrisome for U.S. policymakers, but events of this past month are an obvious culmination of social and technological trends. Demographics in Egypt and other Arab countries now skew heavily to the younger generation, who are fed up with living in a repressive system whose establishment pre-dates their births. And in a 21st century environment connected by satellite TV, mobile phones, and the Internet, it has never been so easy for them to organize and spread popular discontent with corruption and lack of economic opportunities.
While it's too early to tell how Egypt's revolution will turn out, from my point of view, comparisons of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian clerics are overblown. And the apparent centralization of the anti-Mubarak protesters on Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular diplomat and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, as their leader is quite encouraging. Certainly it appears the anti-Mubarak coalition recognizes the importance of selecting a leader who can be viewed with some confidence by the rest of the world to potentially run the country.
Going forward, the U.S. needs to be cognizant that propping up a ruler viewed as illegitimate by his people may ensure stability in the short-term, but it won't last. The desire for self-determination is inexorable, so instead of engendering a people embittered against America, we should show our support for these democratic uprisings. For countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and other future revolutionary spots (not just in the Middle East, but also Africa, where many entrenched strongmen preside over looted states), us being true to our values stands the greatest chance of having those countries produce workable partners rather than hostile extremists.