A Tunisian Wake-Up Call: U.S. Support for Middle Eastern Strongmen Must Stop

Kamil Zawadzki

By Kamil Zawadzki With protests in Tunisia continuing days after the fall of its long-time authoritarian president, political and social commentators continue to watch and evaluate its possible implications for U.S. dealings in the Middle East. Under the rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was considered one of the most reliable partners of the United States and Europe. Western democracies kept mum about its poor human rights record as long as extremists were kept at bay, while even Arab dictators were shocked at the extent of its repression. The Tunisian unrest, however, highlights two things. First: Autocracy may keep things calm and stable on the surface, but beneath that is simmering frustration at economic stagnation and poverty, anger that can easily boil over into rage and open revolt. Tunisia’s economy may have enjoyed progress, but it could not catch up to its own increasingly educated people. That caused high rates of unemployment and poverty, particularly in the south and central Tunisian hinterland. Furthermore, nepotism and corruption among Ben Ali’s clique, which owned multiple prosperous enterprises, only made them even more unpopular among the frustrated poor and underemployed. Second: The U.S. strategy of supporting these Middle Eastern strongmen is failing. Ben Ali and his family fled the country despite decades of Western support, demonstrating that the people of the Middle East are capable of overthrowing their dictators and pushing for democratization. The protest movement, called by some a “Jasmine Revolution,” took place without any known complicity by the United States or Europe. The Tunisian people overthrew a dictator all on their own, it seems, and there is no credit to be given to President Barack Obama, who has so far done little more than ask for as little violence as possible. Similar rumblings are now heard in Jordan, Egypt and Algeria, where people have beenemboldened by Tunisians’ success. The strategy of supporting secular Arab dictators in the hopes of keeping Islamic extremists at bay is a failure. This goes beyond just Tunisia. This was clear before, but the U.S. has been unwilling or unable to change. (Supporting Saddam Hussein in Iraq proved to be a catastrophe, to state the obvious.) In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak may cling to power and endorse his son for succession, but the somewhat less secular Muslim Brotherhood is more popular than ever, especially after the sham parliamentary elections this winter. While the U.S. sent troops to oust regimes in Kabul and Baghdad and build democracies there, it has done almost nothing to support democracy elsewhere in the region. This hypocrisy wins Washington no favors on the Arab street, and alienates local democrats who are waiting for their chance to establish and secure important political reforms. If the people do manage to transforms their countries' dictatorships into democracies, they will be the ones in charge of national policies. If the U.S. really wants to have any hope of maintaining its soft power in the Middle East, it must reconsider its support for authoritarian regimes. Otherwise, future democracies in the region may choose other partners in the international arena.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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