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Amid Arab protests, U.S. influence has waned

The Egyptian government blocks Twitter after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo to demand an end to the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011; 4:04 AM

BAGHDAD - In days gone by, it was pretty much guaranteed that any demonstration in the Arab world would feature burning American flags and a blazing effigy or two of the U.S. president.

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At the pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, references to the United States have been conspicuously absent, a sign of what some analysts are already calling a "post-American Middle East" of diminished U.S. influence and far greater uncertainty about America's role.

For just as burning flags are not part of the current repertoire, neither are demonstrators carrying around models of the Statue of Liberty, as Chinese activists brought to Tiananmen Square in 1989. Middle East activists say they avoid references to the United States as a political role model for fear of alienating potential supporters, said Toujan Faisal, a veteran democracy campaigner in Jordan who has been advising young protesters in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

"I don't think America appeals to the younger generation," she said. "I'm cautious not to present them with the American example because there's a negative attitude to America, a disappointment."

No one yet knows what kind of Middle East will emerge from Cairo's embattled streets: a newly democratic one, an increasingly radicalized one, or perhaps one in which authoritarian regimes tighten their grip. Events in Cairo are unfolding too rapidly to predict, but one possible outcome could be a more visibly anti-American drift.

Still, it is notable that even the most rabid protests against President Hosni Mubarak have focused on his reign, rather than on the American role in enabling it.

Reform of a particular sort could actually bolster U.S. interests if it allows more open commerce and development of a strong middle class in societies often split today between a connected rich and a dispossessed poor.

Yet America's role could also be greatly diminished in an area that remains vital to its national interests, but where the perception has grown of a superpower with few friends beyond Israel and a coterie of authoritarian Arab rulers.

The Obama administration's initial, tepid response to the crisis, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling Mubarak's regime "stable" and Vice President Biden declaring that he didn't regard Mubarak as a dictator, did little to endear Washington to a region that has long yearned for political reform.

President Obama has since adopted a tougher stance, but his language has not gone far enough to convince Arabs puzzled by America's seeming inability to embrace a revolt that they think coincides with America's own ideals, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

"No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way,'' he said. "Otherwise, I think we're losing the Arab world."

The trend became apparent well before Tunisians toppled their U.S.-backed dictator on Jan. 14, inspiring Egyptians to try to oust Mubarak and triggering waves of unrest in Jordan and Yemen.


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