On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire to protest government corruption. Less than a month later, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a man who won 89% of the vote in Tunisia's rubber stamp elections, fled for his life.
American diplomats long considered Tunisia among its closest allies in the Middle East. Ben Ali oversaw a police state, but a secular one. Tunis has long hosted the State Department's advanced Arabic language school, training generations of diplomats. But across the Middle East, Arabs knew Tunisia differently: In a region replete with dictatorships, it was among the worst. If Tunisians could defeat Ben Ali in less than a month, anything was possible.
Within days, protests erupted in Egypt, sparking the worst rioting in decades. One out of three Arabs lives in Egypt. Cairo remains a cultural capital for the entire region. As protests spread, and the grip of octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak waivers, the White House sounded a cautious note. "I would not refer to him as a dictator," Vice President Biden said on PBS NewsHour, reminding viewers that "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things."
The value of the Egyptian alliance is less than meets the eye. Certainly, Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat deserves praise for accepting peace with Israel, although he did so only after failing to achieve his aims through war. Mubarak's Egypt votes with the U.S. at the United Nations only 17% of the time, making Egypt a less reliable partner than Cuba, Vietnam or Zimbabwe. During both the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and the ouster of Saddam 12 years later, Mubarak's support was ephemeral at best. Privately, Egypt often backs the American position on Iran, Libya, and Hamas, but that has less to do with Washington's desires than with Egyptian self-interest.
But even if Mubarak is not a good ally, can the U.S. say for certain that what comes next will not be worse? Iran's Islamic Revolution scarred American policymakers. The Shah had his faults, but they were mild compared to Ayatollah Khomeini's. Unseating dictators need not bring about an Islamic Republic, however, if the U.S. is proactive.
Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim speaks of a dynamic in Arab states in which autocrats and theocrats recruit based on fear of the other. The key, he argues, is to create a liberal alternative in the middle. This was the philosophical underpinning of George W. Bush's approach, at least during his first five years in office. But, after setbacks in Iraq and Gaza, Bush reversed course. Under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's tutelage, he reversed course, reverting to the realist notion of prioritizing short-term relations with any regime over efforts to win long-term reform.
Her choice was misguided. Dictatorships do not bring stability. For decades before the 2006 Gaza elections, dictators led the Middle East into a cycle of destructive wars. To celebrate Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, or Gamal Abdul Nasser for their stabilizing impact on the Middle East is inane. Nor was it wise to leverage American security on the longevity of Mubarak's regime wise. Octogenarian dictators do not have high life expectancy.
Today, the U.S. is paying the price for its refusal to cultivate liberal opposition. Next to Iraq and Afghanistan, Egypt hosts the largest American embassy in the world. That no American diplomat saw this uprising coming, however, should raise serious questions about how our embassies operate. That the Muslim Brotherhood presents a real challenge to American policy is undeniable. In neither Tunisia nor Egypt, however, have Islamists led the popular protests, although there is a risk that the Brotherhood may co-opt the protests. The mistake the White House has made in the past--both under Bush and Obama--is that it has accepted the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism without setting tough standards. Militias should never be accepted as political parties, nor should any group that legitimizes terrorism ever have America's imprimatur. The sooner the White House and State Department engage non-violent opposition groups in the Middle East, the more influence the U.S. will enjoy when the going gets rough and the dictators get going.