NEW YORK - The Arab world is jubilant over the popular uprising in Tunisia that forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee last week after 23 years in power.
Everyone is wondering whether the example set by Tunisians will spread to topple other dictatorships in the Middle East. In recent weeks, small protests erupted in Algeria, Jordan and Egypt - where people are fed up over rising food prices, unemployment and government corruption. But if protests take hold in those countries, the security forces will likely use far more violence to suppress dissent than was used in Tunisia.
It's also unclear what kind of political system will emerge from the revolt in Tunisia. If a military strongman takes control as a "savior" who will restore security, or if Ben Ali's cronies manage to hold on to power after the chaos subsides, then the prospect of revolutionary change could become less appealing to others Arabs.
But one thing is clear from the "Tunisian example": People in the Middle East have given up any hope that the United States can be a force for democratic change. As the uprising spread in Tunisia, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama stayed largely silent until the day Ben Ali fled. That was when Obama issued a statement condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and applauding "the courage and dignity" of Tunisians. By then, it was too late: The U.S.-backed dictator was gone, and the Arab world chalked up another example of how Washington favors stability over democracy.
The Obama administration inherited a decades-old U.S. policy of supporting autocratic regimes - such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - in exchange for political acquiescence. Most governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the "war on terror" as a cover to silence any opposition. Like Tunisia's Ben Ali, these regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.
On Jan. 13, a day before Ben Ali's fall, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lectured a group of Arab leaders assembled in Qatar on the danger of their countries "sinking into the sand" unless they reform their political systems and economies. "Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever," she said. "If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum."
Clinton's words appeared prophetic the next day. But she neglected to mention that most of these leaders were U.S. allies who had heard the same rebukes from American officials many times.
In June 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region - and we achieved neither," she said at the American University in Cairo. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
For a brief period, Rice's message resonated in the Arab world. It was five months after Iraqis showed extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon, a popular revolt had helped dislodge years of Syrian military and political domination. At that moment, the United States could have encouraged some genuine change in the region. But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: In late 2005, a small group of Egyptian judges challenged President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. The United States stood by silently while Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy - or had never meant it in the first place.
It is these contradictions between U.S. rhetoric and actions that lead people in the Middle East to distrust America and spin conspiracy theories about its motives. When the United States continues backing autocrats like Mubarak, against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes like Iran and Syria. And favoring stability over democratic values will come back to haunt America in the long term.
If the United States has any hope of nurturing political maturity in the Arab world, it must support an independent judiciary and a free press - the institutions that help democracy thrive. As Rice herself said in her 2005 speech: "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media." But there was no action behind that rhetoric.
Washington fears that supporting reform in the region would bring Islamist groups to power. Without any space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have the greatest influence through their social service networks. These well-organized groups would likely win any free balloting, so the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections. But democracy is not just about voting. It is a slow process of promoting individual rights and building up civil society, a free press and state institutions. These efforts take time and they make a far less glamorous photo-op than a quick election.
Obama himself took up the soaring oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated address to the Muslim world in June 2009. Yet Obama chose to deliver this message in Egypt, which is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Mubarak has clung to power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow him to imprison thousands of dissidents without charge or trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. Mubarak's regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in U.S. assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel (excluding U.S. spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Since that speech, the administration has remained remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticize U.S. allies who fall short of the ideals about which Obama spoke so eloquently. The administration has also blocked Congressional threats to link future U.S. aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt's human rights record.
With Tunisia's revolution, Obama missed a chance to show the Arab world that he can live up to his lofty rhetoric. He must seize the next opportunity to portray America as a more sympathetic power - a country that sticks up for the little guy and does not tolerate repression.