Parvez Ahmed Headshot

A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Foreign Policy

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The Jasmine Revolution has led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the autocratic leader of Tunisia and has sparked similar revolutionary fervor from Algeria to Egypt. The success in Tunisia has emboldened protestors across the Middle East demanding greater freedom and dignity. The many unforgettable images of the demonstrators are helping to erase the myth of Muslims and Arabs being apathetic to democracy and docile to authoritarian rule. Democracy deficiency has been a fact of life in the Middle East not because the people did not want it but because for decades American support propped up the Arab dictators, all in the name of stability. This policy is now in shambles. Today the region can boast neither stability nor freedom. The "Sputnik moment" opportunity is to reorient the arc of U.S. foreign policy from being solely motivated by American national interests to being guided by the universal values of freedom, liberty, rule of law and democracy.

American Presidents, both Republican and Democrats, have not been totally callous about the lack of freedom and liberty in the Middle East. But they have always made the need for stability in a region whose natural resources (oil) fuels America's economic engine a more urgent priority. Although Egypt and Jordan does not supply the U.S. with oil, their peace treaty with Israel makes them important linchpins of American foreign policy. The dictators in the region obviously know all that and gladly play the fear-card to keep America in their corner, no matter how diametrically opposed their domestic policies are to American values. The Abdullahs and the Mubaraks have for decades successfully invoked the specter of religious hardliners coming to power in the absence of their iron-fisted rules. The distinction between religious conservatives and lawless terrorists were maliciously and deliberately blurred. With Western support Mubarak had cracked down on political opposition often in the name of fighting terrorism. Decades of such actions seeded the violence that convulses much of the Middle East today.

The Iranian experience provided a further pretext. The toppling of an unpopular U.S. puppet, the Shah, was followed by a government hostile to Western interests and restrictive of the freedom and liberty of its own people. When faced with calls for greater democracy, the U.S. foreign policy establishment often argued that the removal of a dictator in the Middle East will not necessarily increase the chances of a liberal democracy in the region. Underlying this assumption is a fallacy that often drives American public opinion about Islam, Muslims and the Arabs -- the propensity to judge vast swaths of people, spanning different cultural backgrounds and historical experiences, with the worst behavior or examples from that part of the world.

For every Iran there is a Turkey. Muslims are neither monolithic nor merely shaped by their religious beliefs. Turkey and Bangladesh for example have held on to their secular democracy, even when religious conservatives rose to power. Instead of using the fear of an Iranian-type religious takeover in Egypt as a pretext to extend President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule, it will be far better to take into account the unique cultural contours of Egypt.

With its three millennium of civilizational experience, Egypt is far more tolerant and pluralistic than many on the outside are led to believe. While religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood enjoy some support in Egypt, they are not universally adored. Although, it is likely that in an open and democratic Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will play some role (unlikely to be dominant), there is no need to fear monger such a possibility. The next Egyptian regime will have to bear in mind that the so-called Arab street is now wide awake. They will not tolerate any government that fails to meet the demands of their people. If a brutal dictator ruling with the unqualified support of the West could be removed in a few days of street protests, as in Tunisia with Egypt hopefully being next, then no regime that rules without the consent of the governed will ever be safe. In addition, the successes, both at home and abroad, of a religiously conservative government in secular Turkey provide a practical model for conservative political forces to emulate in the region.

The time has come for the U.S. government to demonstrate to the Arab and Muslim world that it is indeed on the side of the people. Support for the true democratic aspirations of the people in the region can go a long way in restoring America's image in the Arab and Muslim world. Anything less will only plunge these societies into further darkness from whence could emerge ever more dangerous reactionary and militant forces. The Sputnik moment has arrived. Will President Obama exhibit transformational leadership to provide meaningful American support in transitioning this region to democratic rule of law? Will the Egyptian people see America on their side or will they interpret the mantra of "orderly transition" as code for keeping the Mubarak regime alive, albeit on life support.

[Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida.]