A fundamental question is the role of Islamist groups in the recent protests and their potential fallout. In Tunisia, where politically active Islamic leaders were often jailed or exiled, these groups contributed little to the Jasmine Revolution that toppled the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had remained aloof until Friday’s momentous protests, joining an opposition coalition with Elbaradei and others.
This is not to diminish the undeniable role of Islam in both motivating individual protesters and unifying the masses, nor to discount its potential political reemergence at a later point. However, the relative inconspicuousness of Islamist groups, and complete irrelevance of jihadist movements, in pushing these regimes to the brink has been an unanticipated side-story. It defies the prevailing wisdom in some policy circles that political transformation in the Arab world will necessarily lead to some form of Islamic revolution, a fallacious view that has in large part driven American support for these repressive regimes.
It would behoove the U.S. to constructively support this process of change and democratic transition, rather than to ignore it. Is there a realistic alternative? Even if this latest round of mass protests does not further topple regimes (although with the Egyptian army apparently siding with the demonstrators, President Mubarak’s days are likely numbered), corrupt and authoritarian leaders like Mubarak will not live forever. Looking back to another seminal moment in Middle East history, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, this should have taught American policymakers that presumed allies are not immortal and that alienating large segments of populations can have devastating repercussions.
By siding with detested governments in 2011, implicitly or explicitly, the Obama Administration risks turning popular movements for change against the U.S. That is quite a gamble.
Transform engrained anti-American narratives and side with the people.
The Administration has been granted a singular opportunity to transform deep-rooted regional narratives that associate American power with dictatorship and repression. Given the copious amounts of American security assistance to the regimes in Egypt ($1.5 billion annually) and Yemen (nearly $175 million in 2010) in particular, even a “neutral” position like calling for Mubarak to dialogue with the protestors and heed calls for reform may be perceived as the U.S. backing its ally. The Egyptian demonstrators, some of whom have begun to chant “Mubarak, you coward, you agent of the United States,” certainly recognize the link between American aid and their despot’s iron fist. Images of riot police using tear gas canisters that bear the label “Made in U.S.A,” coupled with American diplomats’ equivocation, only reinforce this association.
The tide has irrevocably turned, and the United States must now back the people. If the U.S. can wisely and prudently support these courageous protesters to achieve their dreams for democracy, freedom and dignity, it will demonstrate to the region and world its “unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” President Obama’s 2009 address to the broader Muslim world, appropriately given in Cairo, certainly rings true today.
Change is afoot. And to think that it all started with a twenty-six year old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire to protest the humiliating confiscation of his fruits and vegetables.
(James R. King is an independent analyst, specializing in Zaydism, Yemen and the broader Middle East. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, King lived in Yemen in 2007 as part of an American Institute for Yemeni Studies fellowship, where he conducted interviews with leading Zaydi scholars on the Zaydi community in Yemen. This research was published as “Zaydis in a Post-Zaydi Yemen: ‘Ulama Reactions to Zaydism’s Marginalization in the Republic of Yemen.”)