For decades, the United States has always harped on the universal virtue of democratic governance even as it bolstered despots in West Asia, choosing to condone repression in return for nurturing its interests in the region. It’s why Washington could never win the support of the Arab streets.
The reverse now seems to be happening as winds of change blow through the Arab world. As tens of thousands poured into the streets of Cairo demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, their anger not ebbing over the week, Washington began to shift its stance. From vice-president Joseph Biden telling a TV anchor that it wasn’t time for Mubarak to go, America came a long way with President Barack Obama declaring that “an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now”. His statement came hours after Mubarak said in a TV telecast that he’d step down only in September.
The first signs of a change in American policy came as Washington asked Mubarak to listen to the protesting throng, says Metsa Rahimi, a London-based security intelligence analyst at Janusian Security Risk Management. “That was a very big step in a different direction—one that showed how worried the US had become about Mubarak’s future,” he says.
Initially, America’s reluctance to pull the rug from under Mubarak stemmed from its perception about the absence of a clear alternative. Opposition groups have withered under Mubarak’s iron fist and the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised of the anti-Mubarak forces, has been demonised by the Egyptian state because of its Islamist credentials.
The paranoia of Islamists has often prompted Washington to abandon groups demanding democracy in favour of providing unconditional support to the despots of the region. Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Institution’s centre in Doha, Qatar, told Outlook, “The US has a democracy problem. It says it wants democracy, but not necessarily its outcomes.” Hamid’s point is valid—for instance, the US championed the cause of free elections in the Palestinian Territories, but refused to accept the Hamas which won the 2006 elections. Hamid quips, “We’re afraid of free elections in the Arab world. Why did George Bush turn his back on the freedom agenda? Because Islamists did well wherever there were free elections.”
Michael Dunn of Middle East Institute in Washington says many Egyptians genuinely admire the US but are puzzled by its West Asian policy. “They see this as often driven by motives that don’t seem to be congruent with American support for democratic governance. There is a sense that the US has often come down on the wrong side of some issues.”
Perhaps the time has come for the Americans to change, as the Arab world witnesses events unprecedented in its history.