The US administration supports the democratic ambition evident in the wave of unrest spreading across the Arab world, President Barack Obama said today, but change must be driven by local actors and circumstances.
“Your aspirations for greater opportunity, for your ability to speak your mind, for a free press — those are absolutely aspirations we support,” he said, addressing protesters in the region.
But, he added, “ultimately what happens in each of these countries will be determined by the citizens of those countries.”
“Each country is different. Each country has its own traditions. America can’t dictate how they run their society,” he said.
Change was “going to happen because people come together and apply moral force to a situation,” he said, cautioning governments against the use of violence.
Obama defended the US stance during the crisis in Egypt.
“History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history,” he said. “We ended up seeing a peaceful transition, relatively little violence and relatively little, if any, anti-American sentiment, relatively little anti-Israel, anti-Western sentiment.”
He advised Arab governments to “get out ahead of change; you can’t be behind the curve” and to secure stability by addressing citizen’s basic needs, providing “pathways for them to feed their families, get a decent job, get an education, [and] aspire to a better life.”
But the prospects for a genuine transitions are far from clear, with some observers concerned that the military is planning a restoration-by-stealth of the old regime.
What we see is that while Mubarak is gone, the military regime in which he served has dramatically increased its power. This isn’t incompatible with democratic reform. Organizing elections, political parties and candidates is not something that can be done quickly. If the military is sincere in its intentions, it will have to do these things. The problem is that if the military is insincere it will do exactly the same things.
If a transition is to take place, timing and sequencing are critical variables, writes David Makovsky, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Hamas and Hezbollah have demonstrated how authoritarian actors can exploit premature elections in the absence of robust democratic institutions.
“Democratic transition is hard enough without pressure demanding that it be rapid. The objective is to ensure that the Egyptian revolution is sustainable,” he argues. “The test is not a first election, but rather whether there is a second one.”