A decade doesn't change much in Washington. After the tragedy of 9/11, Americans chose not to understand the nature and the motivation behind these horrific acts; but rather they hastened to ask: "Why do they hate us?". Policymakers rushed to rally public support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, using rhetoric that pitted "West" against "East," and "us" versus "them," while failing to grasp what Arabs and Muslims were really thinking.
Ten years after the horrific events, the Arab Spring proved that Washington is still eager to jump to conclusions. With the beginning of the protests; analysts hurried to provide their own recommendations for democratic transition in the Arab world. Instead of taking a breath and watching what would unfold organically, pundits and commentators detailed prescriptions for how these transformations should proceed, and providing a solution for very different situations. As Washington leapt to shepherd the Arab world towards democracy, Arabs themselves were left shaking their heads.
While advocating for these "American" values, much of this commentary neglected to acknowledge the inconsistencies in U.S. policy at this time. Although promoting democracy on paper, the U.S. has historically, supported autocratic regimes in the region for the sake of its own strategic interests.
An examination of the United States' record from the past ten years highly supports this controversial argument. Under the Bush administration, the United States adopted a boisterous and strong rhetoric that called for democratization throughout the Middle East, and the Obama administration followed suit.
In Egypt, the U.S. was reluctant to ask its long-time ally, Hosni Mubarak, to step down until it was clear that he would be overthrown, and Vice President Joe Biden went so far as to deny that Mubarak was a dictator.
Bahrain, a critical strategic ally given its proximity to Iran and as the base of the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet, has brutally cracked down on protesters calling for greater political representation of the country's Shi'ite majority. The U.S. was remarkably weak in its condemnation of the kingdom, even as Shi'ite protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in the country, and after the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, deployed 1,000 troops of its Peninsula Shield Force to help the kingdom quash dissent.
Now, the U.S. is scrambling to find a foothold in the new political system taking form where revolution has culminated in the overthrow of a decades-old autocracy. In Egypt, members of the old elite who had previously served U.S. interests have either fled the country or are facing trial, and the U.S. has a pressing desire to find an access point to the soon-to-be-elected government.
One way America has attempted to find a hold is through the financial support of various democratic development programs in hopes of diluting the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the well-organized Islamist party which appears poised to gain significant votes in the upcoming election. Some members of the congress have been explicit about their position regarding the Muslim Brotherhood; pushing forward a bill which would cut defense aid to Egypt should "extremist" groups (Muslim Brotherhood included) play a role in the new government. It is clear that in lieu of their support for democracy and freedom of expression, the U.S. refuses to accept that the Islamists are part of the revolutionary fabric in the Arab world, and that the party has a right to hold their share of power so long as they don't pursue violence.
America's understanding of the current situation is derived primarily from listening to Egyptian and Arab liberal democrats who sadly represent only a tiny minority of the Arab population. While the majority of nonviolent Islamists have regularly expressed their openness to democracy, their views are rarely given any exposure in the mainstream American media. Washington think tanks regularly feature Arab liberals distressing over the suffering in the region, yet Islamic voices are rarely heard when discussing the future of democracy. Major American newspapers write of imprisoned Arab liberal dissidents, yet they disregard the pro-democracy Islamists sharing those same prison cells.
Biased media coverage and the know-it-all attitude of pundits in Washington suggest that Americans are just as misinformed of the Middle East as they were 10 years ago. During this transition, Arab people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya expect a new government which is accountable to its people, and which stands for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
After a decade of unclear policy objectives and misguided forays into the region, the best way for the U.S. to help the Middle East achieve this goal during this time of change is to sit back, and keep quiet.
* Mohamed Elmenshawy is Egyptian American writer based in Washington DC.