60-Second Expert: Democracy in the Middle East

In Cairo last week, President Barack Obama addressed the Muslim world, calling for a “new beginning” in the search for peace and prosperity in the Middle East. What he failed to address in this widely anticipated speech, however, were the repressive and corrupt regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While eloquently promoting democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights, Obama ignored the human rights abuses that have become routine under the 28-year dictatorship of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, on his visit to Saudi Arabia, the president refrained from publicly criticizing King Abdullah’s brutal theocracy.

Surely, Obama could have taken a firmer stance against the Saudi and Egyptian governments. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are heavily tied to the United States both militarily and economically, giving Obama the necessary leverage to pressure their leaders into more tolerant, democratic practices. Yet Obama remains reluctant to criticize America’s Middle Eastern allies or label their rulers as “authoritarian.” In this respect, he continues in the footsteps of the Bush administration, which turned a blind eye to human rights in the interest of maintaining geopolitical alliances.

Obama’s silence on this issue may prove to be more harmful than helpful. By alienating and inciting the anger of young, disenfranchised Arabs and Muslims — a group of people most likely to join the ranks of radical Islamists — America’s continued support for the dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia places Americans at risk of another anti-American reaction.

Perhaps it is not America’s role to enforce top-down transitions to democracy. But it should not actively hinder the growing grassroots movements towards democracy in the Middle East by propping up tyrannical regimes.

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Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies as the University of San Francisco.