As Arabs protest, U.S. speaks up

An anti-government protester and a policeman confront each other in Cairo, where hundreds were arrested Wednesday. Story, A8.
An anti-government protester and a policeman confront each other in Cairo, where hundreds were arrested Wednesday. Story, A8. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Obama administration is openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East, a stance that is far less tempered than the one the president has taken during past unrest in the region.

As demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo and Beirut have unfolded in recent days, President Obama and his senior envoys to the region have thrown U.S. support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target longtime U.S. allies such as Egypt.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity . . . to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." She urged "the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites."

Asked whether the administration supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs replied only: "Egypt is a strong ally."

Administration officials say they will pursue a dual-track approach in the coming weeks, both speaking with civil activists in Egypt and meeting with officials to encourage reform in the bellwether Arab nation.

Such an approach comes with a degree of risk in the region, where democratic reforms have often empowered well-organized Islamist movements at odds with U.S. objectives. As a result, the United States has often favored the stability of authoritarian allies in the Middle East over the uncertainty of democratic change.

The administration's assertive stance contrasts sharply with Obama's approach during his first year in office, when he often tempered his advocacy of human rights and democracy with a large measure of pragmatism. His decision this time reflects the rising importance of those issues in his foreign policy goals.

The president is also less reluctant to inject the United States into the Arab Middle East after two years of speaking directly to the Muslim world, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even though it has since faltered. Polls show U.S. popularity rising in many Arab countries since Obama took office and falling in a smaller number of others.

"Some of the confidence and assertiveness comes from having spent time in government, and now we've identified ways where we want to make our push," said a senor administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House thinking on the Middle East developments.

The official said Obama's emphasis on Internet freedom as well as on U.S.-funded programs to encourage rule of law and government accountability are among the measures the administration is using to foster change.

"We've aligned our approach to where we see the currents of democratic reform moving," the official said.

On the sidelines in Iran

In his June 2009 address in Cairo to the Islamic world, Obama said "there is no straight line to realize this promise" of democratic government with respect for human rights. He offered mild advice to the region's autocrats, saying that "governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure."

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