When the street vendor in Tunis, Tunisia set himself on fire to protest his treatment and governmental corruption, no one in the Middle East or in Washington felt that this act of protest would set the region on fire.
But there have been plenty of signs of discontent, disillusionment and division in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen along with Jordan and Syria for years. These countries have a young population with little chance of long term employment and upward mobility. Also these countries are led by a sheltered and arrogant elite that has had scant interest in economic and political reform. Add to this the fact that the global recession has magnified the economic stress in the country and the result is an enormous reservoir of frustration and anger.
It is easy in hindsight to say that the United States and the western powers should have seen this coming rather than be overtaken by events. But in this country administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have for years nutured and supported these Middle Eastearn regimes because of national security interests. We looked the other way as growing income inequality, blatant corruption, and thug-style politics became the norm.
Now the United States is feverishly trying to mend fences in Tunisia and Yemen and pleading with Egypt’s Mubarak to resign, meanwhile making connections to all the various players in these countries as a new order begins to take control. In Egypt, in particular, this is playing out like the fall of the Shah in Iran as the United States propped up an unpopular dictator and then saw all its efforts explode in an Islamic revolution.
This rebellion in the Middle East is still in its infancy and no one really knows for sure where all this upheaval is going. But it is safe to say that the United States already has seen its influence diminish, along with its security strategy for the region. President Obama will have to do a lot of convincing to the new leaders in these countries if the United States wants to ensure that anti-Americanism does not become the wave of the future.
Democratic revolution can be an inspiring and hope-filled movement, but it can also be the beginning of new alliances, new policy directions and new visions. It is abs0lutely essential that the Obama administration get this right in the Middle East.