The Arab revolution swells

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Monday, February 28, 2011; 7:40 PM

THREE QUESTIONS have driven discussion of the ongoing Arab revolt and how the United States should respond to it. Can it spread to all of the Arab states, including seemingly stable kingdoms, such as Saudi Arabia, and the most repressive police states, such as Syria? Can it be stopped with violence by regimes more ruthless than those of Tunisia and Egypt? And can entrenched power structures succeed in limiting the amount of change, through bribes or negotiation?

The answers are not yet in - but so far, the trends point toward a "no" to all three questions. That's an exciting prospect for supporters of democracy, above all young Arabs who yearn for their countries to refound themselves. But it also means more instabilility ahead in the region, along with some hard choices for the United States.

First, to the trends. Experts on the Middle East at first doubted that revolution could spread from Tunisia to Egypt, then that it could penetrate the emirates of the Persian Gulf. But now Oman has joined Bahrain in struggling with a popular uprising - and Saudi King Abdullah is facing a petition from intellectuals demanding far-reaching reforms and a Facebook campaign calling for demonstrations this month.

The Saudis appear to have encouraged both the Egyptian and Bahraini governments to put down protests by force. That strategy failed, and now, in Libya, it may be decisively discredited. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has attacked his citizens with mercenary forces and air power, yet he has been steadily losing control. If opposition forces emerge victorious, not only Bahrain, Yemen and Oman but also Syria will have to wonder whether the use of force will similarly boomerang.

That will be particularly true if the international response to Mr. Gaddafi's violence is forceful enough to help tip the balance toward his opponents. Resolutions by the U.N. Human Rights Council, before which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday, will not accomplish that. But the imposition of a no-fly zone, recognition of the opposition, and the provision of supplies to opposition-controlled areas could. Fortunately the Obama administration is now considering those measures.

The murkiest question is how far change will go - but here again the trend is toward more. That could be seen in the forced resignation over the weekend of Tunisia's prime minister , a holdover from the previous regime, and in continuing mass demonstrations in Egypt aimed at forcing out its holdover prime minister. Some warn that demands for more change could lead to chaos. But the greater danger is that attempts by the old, corrupt elites to cling to power will prompt endless conflict and play into the hands of extremists who currently are marginalized.

The direction of events means that, more than ever, the American interest lies in encouraging more rather than less freedom and in reaching out to those Arabs who seek genuine democracy. If that means straining ties with autocratic allies, that is preferable to appearing to back the wrong side - as the Obama administration has done all too frequently during the past two months. Regimes that seek to resist the tide of change, whether allied to the United States or not, are a poor bet - and the more Arab societies liberalize, the larger the long-term benefit for American interests will be.


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