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Arab world uprisings

Ryan Williams | Thursday, February 24, 2011

The massive revolutionary protests that have swept across the Middle East in recent weeks have spread like a wildfire from country to country, inspiring the hopes of repressed and downtrodden nations and inciting fear in the hearts of autocratic dictators throughout the Arab world. The popular uprisings have already seen the overthrow of tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt and have critically endangered the oppressive regimes of several others in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. In addition, the extraordinary courage and organizational capacity of the protestors has spurred demonstrators in such distant places as Zimbabwe and China to stand up and demand democratic reforms in their own countries. Many observers have highlighted the almost entirely unforeseen nature of the protests, which have left many governments, including the United States, fumbling for a response to the rapidly changing situation on the ground. As they work to formulate new policies and strategies to address the reawakened Middle East, there are several lessons that American policy makers should draw from this historic upheaval.

The first is that the United States should never again be caught on the wrong side of a struggle for democracy. American policy makers have long argued that the United States has neither friends nor allies, only interests. For years, Arab strongmen like Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali served American interests well, keeping Islamic extremism at bay and providing a semblance of stability in a volatile region. That these tyrants achieved this stability through intimidation and violent repression was immaterial, as the apparent costs of a free society — including a more uncertain supply of oil — far outweighed any potential benefits. In light of the sea change that has swept the Middle East in recent weeks, we now know that this strategy was fatally flawed, for it cast the United States as enablers of autocracy and oppression, forcing the administration to explain to protestors why it had supported the very forces of tyranny which were now trying to slaughter them in the streets.

Some conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have actually criticized President Obama for not doing enough to support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, even as a vast majority of his own people forcefully demanded that he step down. They argue that Mubarak and other strongmen like him are allies of the United States that the president is “throwing under the bus,” and that they will likely be replaced by Islamist governments hostile to the U.S. Thankfully, not many reasonable people ever pay much attention to what Mr. Beck and Mr. Limbaugh have to say, and there really is no reason for anyone to start now. In reality, American support for oppressive Arab regimes has been one of the primary contributing factors in the rise of the anti-Western sentiments that have pervaded the Middle East. Demonstrating tangible support for the protestors and embracing the new democratic movements is the least the United States can do to atone for its past failures in the region.

The Obama administration should also recognize that the uprisings in the Arab world present an historic opportunity to pressure Israel to abandon its illegal and unjustified settlement activity and return in good faith to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. The Israeli government now finds itself in the midst of tremendous regional uncertainty and instability, with almost no ability to foresee how events will unfold in each of the Arab nations surrounding them. Thus, they have an increased incentive to negotiate now, while reasonable governments still hold power in Jordan and the West Bank. Convincing the Israelis of this imperative, and persuading them to drop their preconditions to negotiation, is essential to ensuring a lasting peace in the Middle East and is something that President Obama has a unique opportunity to achieve.

The most important lesson to draw from the recent events in the Middle East however, comes from the protestors themselves, and it is one that all Americans can and should appreciate. These demonstrators have proven their willingness to stand in front of water cannons and live bullets, mercenary thugs with clubs and professional soldiers in tanks, all to attain basic human rights like freedom of expression and the right to a representative government. They have risen up against their oppressors and risked everything, even death, in order to ensure a better life for their children and their countrymen. This incredible patriotism should inspire us all, and make us think twice about those rights and liberties that we as Americans all too often take for granted. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a nation where freedom and protection are guaranteed, and it is our duty to ensure that all human beings have equal access to these same basic human rights.

Ryan Williams is a sophomore. He can be reached at twilli15@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.