Where are the democracy promoters on Tunisia?

Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt's authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration's alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime's heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis's efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The "Tunisia scenario" is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.

But the Post's op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?

Perhaps they've had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It's far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women's rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia's absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration's signature democracy promotion initiative.

This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it's worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

But the worries of official Washington shouldn't apply to advocates and analysts, particularly those who have long demanded a stronger role for the United States on Egyptian democracy regardless of the strategic implications. So what do such voices for Egyptian democracy and Arab reform think about Tunisia? They can't shy away from Tunisia simply because it isn't Egypt. Tunisia is topic number one with Arab publics today, even if it isn't yet in Washington, and Arab audiences keenly notice their silence. If U.S. advocates of Arab democracy don't step up to draw attention to Tunisia's protests, it will only reinforce the skeptical view that their advocacy of Arab democracy is mainly about putting pressure on Hosni Mubarak or scoring points against the Obama administration. And that will weaken any future advocacy.

And along those lines, here's a genuine question: If the Obama administration decides to tacitly or overtly side with the protesters and Ben Ali's regime falls, will these Washington voices for Arab democracy applaud the change or will they attack Obama for selling out a secular ally? How deep does U.S. support for Arab democratic change really go?

UPDATE, January 14, 6:30am:  This morning, the Post's Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl responds with a strong column, acknowledging that "the most imminent threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East is not war; it is revolution."  Diehl surveys the events rocking the region --  with some gracious links to FP -- placing the Tunisian protests in a series of "threats" including Lebanon and Iran.  It's genuinely good to see the issue finally addressed, and I'm glad to see Diehl step up to the issue.   But is "threat" to U.S. interests and Obama's reform record really the right frame for this? Diehl concludes that "It may be too late for the United States to head off a rolling social upheaval in the Middle East this year ... but if it follows up on what Clinton has been saying, it can at least place itself on the right side of those events."  But after years of agitating for democratic reform, placing the Tunisian uprisings as a threat seems inadequate.  Are the demonstrations against Ben Ali only a "threat" to U.S. interests and not an opportunity for the democratic change about which we hear so much?   Let's see this conversation continue.

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Arab regimes on edge

It's very clear that most Arab regimes are on edge over the possibility of the spread of the protests in Tunisia and Algeria. Arab columnists and TV shows have been excitedly debating the real causes of the protests and what they might mean, while in country after country warnings are being sounded of a repeat of the "Tunisia scenario." It's not at all clear whether these protests actually will spread yet, as regimes on high alert will not be taken by surprise and local conditions vary dramatically.

The protests have already sparked a region-wide debate about the prospects for political change and the costs of political repression and economic stagnation. The discussion of the "Tunisia scenario" is everywhere. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood warned today that the impending price rises planned by the new government will lead to an unprecedented explosion along the North African model -- which is the lead story in Lebanon's al-Akhbar. In Egypt, Trade and Industry Minister Rashid Mohammed Rashid ruled out a "Tunisia scenario" in his country over the economy, though many columnists and political activists disagree. Leading Saudi columnist Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed today seems worried, rather than excited, that protesters may have broken the psychological barrier against demonstrating and raises the specter of a "domino theory" by which even currently calm Arab states may soon be threatened.

The debate is being carried by social media and by satellite television, despite the outsized efforts by most of the regimes to silence whatever media falls under their control. From Kuwait and Tunisia's moves to ban al-Jazeera to traditional repression of local journalists to the escalating crackdown against Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, Arab regimes are trying to keep control of the narrative. But it doesn't seem to be working. Even status quo media outlets are being forced to discuss the events and to entertain unsettling questions.

It still is not at all obvious that these protests will sustain themselves, lead to revolutions, or even force major changes in the policies of their regimes. But they have already seared themselves into Arab political discourse. Defenders of the regimes generally try to define the events as food and price riots, or else as externally fomented terrorism. Few independent columnists or activists agree with the idea that these are simply food and price riots, or external terrorism. They point to the underlying political problems which have enabled the economic mismanagement and corruption and lack of opportunity. How the events are framed will have real significance for the response.

In the meantime, I'd like to throw out two interesting questions about the developing events. First, as I raised last week, as best I can tell the protests still lack any clear political direction or leadership -- primarily because the regimes have so thoroughly decimated the integrity of their political institutions that few citizens see any way to voice their grievances through formal political channels. Few political parties seem to be playing any significant role, even Islamists. Do the protests need to be channeled into an organized political or social movement in order to press clear political demands? If they did continue to escalate in the face of regime repression, without any clear leadership, what kind of change might they produce? The great hope here is that Arab regimes might respond as they did in the late 1980s, where economic protests in countries such as Jordan led to unprecedented democratic openings. But many of the regimes point instead to Algeria in the early 1990s, where such an opening led to Islamist advances, a military coup, and years of horrific bloodshed. Which will it be?

Second, it is striking how little role there has been for international actors such as the United States and the European Union in these protests. Where they have been involved at all, the United States and the EU have been cautious and reactive. While many will see this as a criticism, I'm not so sure. Americans tend to exaggerate the importance of U.S. rhetoric on Arab popular movements and governments. The Bush administration's "freedom and democracy" rhetoric from 2004 to 2006 may have had some marginal impact, but the real driver of contentious politics in those years came from internal factors: the protest momentum and networks shaped by demonstrations in support of the Palestinians (from 2000-2002) and against the Iraq war (2003); the novelty of al-Jazeera satellite TV and internet-based new media; the timing of political openings, from the series of elections scheduled for Egypt to the Hariri assassination.

That the rising wave of protest today comes in the near-complete absence of United States or international support presents an intriguing variable. Tunisians and Algerians didn't need an Obama speech to begin their protests, even if they anxiously watch Washington now for signs of support. I'd guess that the best way for the outside to have an impact now is by restraining violent repression by their allied autocratic regimes -- though, if they feel that their survival is threatened they won't likely listen.

AFP/Getty Images