While the United States has in the past pressed the dictatorships of the Arab nations to pursue freer civil societies and more liberal economies, we have nonetheless tepidly supported these leaders because they kept Islamic radicalism at bay and were key allies in issues such as Iran and the War on Terror. One of the fundamental challenges of pro-democracy movements in the Middle East is that they are usually combined with violence, anti-American rhetoric, and radical Islamists. This can be seen with great example in Turkey and Iran. Historically, the military junta that ruled over Turkey was secular and relatively open to liberalizing their nation-- including allowing for free elections. However, over time Islamists get themselves democratically elected (usually by the rural poor and uneducated) and begin to try to implement Sharia law, leading the secular military to intervene in the democratic process now and then (with the increasing Europeanization of Turkey, though, this is becoming less frequent). Similarly, the movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was led by pro-democracy students and ultraconservative Islamists-- a movement that led to what is a repressive and dangerous theocratic dictatorship masquerading as a republic. Like Turkey, most of Ahmadinejad's popular support comes from the rural poor and uneducated.
This radical Islamist danger exists most prominently with the democracy movement in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to take advantage of the chaos for their own benefit-- and if the (secular) Egyptian military does not take efforts
to restore the rule of law, agree to allow political reform and a representative government to take place, and halt repressive measures like the unprecedented severance
of all Internet communications in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood may only become stronger. While this is a worrisome prospect, there are more immediate dangers for us coming from the chaos in the Arab world. The timing of these protests will no doubt severely hamper our efforts to diplomatically muscle Iran into abandoning its nuclear aspirations-- at the negotiating table, nations like Egypt are some of the most influential.
Additionally, there is the clear danger that the protests in Yemen
pose. The small nation is impoverished and its government already weak, and a sect of Al Qaeda has been gaining power there. Some of the most recent terrorist threats have originated from Al Qaeda in Yemen, and we have been working extensively with their government to fight this sect. Whereas the protests in Egypt and Tunisia could have the unfortunate consequence of strengthening some Islamist agendas, the collapse of the Yemeni government could bring about a new stronghold for Al Qaeda. This, of course, leaves the United States in a bit of a quandary concerning its past, present, and future relations with these nations. What is clear, however, is that the current policy in the Middle East is not working
, and we need to change it drastically if we are to figure out how to contain the dangers that instability in the region pose while encouraging them to cultivate liberal governments.