While much attention focuses on how gracefully to dislodge President Hosni Mubarak from his 30-year reign, the Obama administration should be asking how U.S. policies helped him remain in office that long to begin with. The United States has grown far too comfortable with an Arab world dominated by unmovable, abusive rulers while assuming that the Arab people couldn’t be trusted with democracy. U.S. support for pro-Western oppressors may have helped curb Islamist influences, assure a steady flow of oil and keep Israel secure. But disastrous consequences now are resulting from America’s decision to compromise its fundamental democratic principles for the expediency of the iron fist. Egyptians want democracy badly enough to die for it. Instead of an unqualified voice of support from Washington, what the protesters perceive are U.S. stalling tactics aimed at buying Mubarak a few more months in power. Unless the United States takes a more vocal lead in helping the protesters achieve their goal, the next generation of Arab leaders cannot be blamed for turning their backs on America altogether. Washington should focus less on shoring up its credibility with dictators than building credibility with those who want to end the Arab world’s long era of oppressive rule. Al-Qaida and other Islamist groups have long opposed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. So whose interests ultimately are served by a U.S. policy favoring monarchs and dictators over democratic leadership? Arabs must be given the opportunity to choose for themselves, as frightening as this might sound to Westerners. Yes, there is a danger that they could use the vote to elect Islamists. But Egyptian protesters say that, having fought this hard to uproot Mubarak, they have no intention of replacing him with an Iran-style government of mullahs. Some examples, such as the Palestinians’ choice of the Islamist Hamas over the secular but corrupt leadership of Fatah, fuel the impression that Arabs aren’t ready for full democracy.
But in Iraq, voters experimented with Islamist leadership, and when those representatives failed to deliver on their populist promises of jobs and improved services, voters subsequently ousted them. That’s exactly how the system should work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to facilitating a democratic transition. What works for Egypt might not work for Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
But it’s clear that the Arab street is fed up with oppression, corruption and human rights abuses that occur while Washington looks the other way. Their autocratic rulers are pushing the region toward increasing chaos, not stability. And Tuesday’s mass gathering in Cairo should dispel any notion that the protests are going to die down soon. This is a messy and unpredictable process. But if America truly stands for democracy, Washington must abandon the double standard.