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After Tunisia, Arab world gives up on America

Analysis: US silence on Tunisia proves it favors stability over democracy in Arab world.

Washington fears that supporting reform in the region would bring Islamist groups to power. Without any space for popular-based political movements to emerge, Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have the greatest influence through their social service networks. These well-organized groups would likely win any free balloting, so the autocratic rulers have a convenient bogeyman to avoid elections. But democracy is not just about voting. It is a slow process of promoting individual rights and building up civil society, a free press and state institutions. These efforts take time and they make a far less glamorous photo-op than a quick election.

Obama himself took up the soaring oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated address to the Muslim world in June 2009. Yet Obama chose to deliver this message in Egypt, which is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Mubarak has clung to power since 1981 under emergency laws that allow him to imprison thousands of dissidents without charge or trial, and to stifle peaceful political activity. Mubarak’s regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in U.S. assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel (excluding U.S. spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Since that speech, the administration has remained remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticize U.S. allies who fall short of the ideals about which Obama spoke so eloquently. The administration has also blocked Congressional threats to link future U.S. aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt’s human rights record.

With Tunisia’s revolution, Obama missed a chance to show the Arab world that he can live up to his lofty rhetoric. He must seize the next opportunity to portray America as a more sympathetic power — a country that sticks up for the little guy and does not tolerate repression.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.