The Middle East's growing political unrest

Saturday, January 22, 2011; 6:48 PM

AWEEK AFTER Tunisia's popular revolution, the country's direction remains far from settled - and unrest in its Arab neighbors is rising. Seven people in Algeria and nine in Egypt have set themselves on fire, or attempted to, in imitation of the desperate man who triggered Tunisia's uprising. There were mass anti-government demonstrations in Jordan on Friday, and Egypt's opposition has called one for Tuesday. In Tunis protesters continue to march, demanding that former government ministers serving in an interim government step down. That administration has freed political prisoners and declared an end to censorship, but it has not yet agreed on a clear political strategy.

This remains a moment of great opportunity in the Middle East but also of danger. Tunisia could conceivably become the first Arab autocracy to carry out a largely peaceful transition to genuine democracy, following in the path of former dictatorships in Europe and Asia. Or, like some former Soviet republics, it could lapse back into corrupt authoritarianism. Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states could begin to open their political systems to secular democratic parties and civil society groups - or they could continue to repress or seek to buy off opponents, leaving Islamist movements as their only serious opposition.

The United States and its allies in Europe could have considerable influence on these outcomes. But so far their policies appear adrift. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech this month that correctly diagnosed "corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order." She called for "political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives." But what does that mean? Ms. Clinton didn't mention elections or democracy. When President Obama called Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, he said that the United States supported "free and fair elections in Tunisia," but he didn't discuss Mr. Mubarak's own plan to hold an blatantly unfree presidential "election" this year. Nor is it clear what the administration intends to do to promote free elections in Tunisia, other than making public statements.

This situation demands a reshaping and an invigoration of the administration's Middle East policy. An immediate priority should be steps that encourage Tunisia's interim authorities to embrace genuine democracy. This must be done diplomatically, as Tunisians are suspicious of Western governments that supported the former dictatorship. But the United States and Europe can make clear that a democratic Tunisia will be rewarded with generous aid and trade programs, while those who seek to reimpose autocracy will be sanctioned. It can also offer technical advice to emerging democratic forces and insist on international monitoring of any elections.

In Egypt and other parts of the region, the administration should be pressing for tangible steps to open the political space that Ms. Clinton spoke of. That means allowing the free formation of secular political parties, removing restrictions on civil society groups and allowing peaceful public assembly. If necessary, the administration - or Congress - should link continued military and other foreign aid to such steps. The perils of the Middle East's autocratic stasis have now been vividly demonstrated. Why would the United States continue to fund that stagnant status quo?

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