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Is The Arab Spring Good Or Bad For The U.S.?

The Arab uprisings have ousted or weakened some American allies. Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have shown the strength of Islamist political parties. And after the long, hard war in Iraq, the U.S. appears to have a diminished appetite for new, complicated undertakings in the region. In the last of our six-part series on the upheavals changing the Middle East, NPR's Deborah Amos looks at what it all means for America.

The Arab Spring was misnamed from the start. It was more like a political earthquake than a season of revolt — and the ground is still shaking. Of 22 Arab countries, only three autocrats have been fully ousted, and the uprisings have hardly run their course.

Ask if the changes taking place are good or bad for the U.S., and you often get a different question in return.

"Well, I think it's almost like saying, 'Is a natural disaster good or bad for America?' It just happened. I mean, there's not that much ...there's nothing that we can do about it," says Greg Gause, who specializes in Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "And so the question is not so much is it good for us or is it bad for us — the question is, 'How do we react to it?' "

The initial reaction was optimistic. President Obama said the uprising on Cairo's Tahrir Square presented a historic opportunity. But the darker days that followed in Egypt, Libya and Syria have tempered the response.

A November poll showed most U.S. voters don't see the political changes in countries like Egypt as good for America. Even fewer expect the new leaders to become allies now that some long-term American allies are gone.

"The revolution, from the beginning, has caught the U.S. off guard, and they were revolutions against U.S. strongmen," says Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

He describes this period as a historical shift comparable to the Arab revolts of the last century — the Lawrence of Arabia moment, he calls it. Then, it was a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. This time, the target is an American system of alliances that depended on cooperative dictators. This time, it's also about a younger generation that wants a voice.

"Now, all of a sudden now, we have a new player," he says. "It's not Islamists, as such. It's the people. And I think that is the biggest challenge as far as the U.S. is concerned — new players on the block that they haven't really heard or even accounted for before."

Islamists Win At The Polls

For the first time, what "the people" have to say is expressed at the ballot box.

In Tunisia, voter turnout in October was near 90 percent in some areas. But even in this most secular and Western-leaning country, Islamists emerged as the most organized political force, which raises the question: How much democracy in the Middle East is good for the United States?

People really want to be free, and in the long term, democracy and a greater freedom will come about in the Middle East. In the interim, there may be some difficult days.

"Overall, I think it's good. People really want to be free, and in the long term, democracy and a greater freedom will come about in the Middle East. In the interim, there may be some difficult days," says Thomas Henriksen, who writes about American power.

In Henriksen's office at Stanford University, a large bust of Ronald Reagan sits amoung his books. For Henriksen, freedom is the highest American value, and American interests will have to adapt.

"It was always a bit strained to deal with only a dictator," he says. "It was always too narrow a base to put our policy on."

Yet for decades, dictators delivered a relatively stable and predictable region. American foreign policy priorities like a reliable flow of oil, a relatively secure Israel, and a check on radical regimes and groups were met, more or less. We got what we needed, says Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Yes, we can all feel warm and fuzzy about democracy in the region, but we also have to recognize that it's all not going to work out very well for us," he says. "There is going to be new and different challenges ahead for the United States with a more open and democratic Middle East."

Reconsidering Egypt

The biggest challenge by far is in Egypt, where the U.S. still sends $1.3 billion in aid each year.

In parliamentary elections, Egyptians delivered a strong victory to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that pledges to build a modern democracy. But it's foreign policy outlook is less to America's liking than that of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

In a major shift, the Obama administration has opened the first high-level dialogue with Egypt's Islamists. It is a reflection of the new political realities in the region, says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Center in Doha, Qatar.

"I think there is a growing perception in the Arab world that the U.S. is a power in decline and that it doesn't have as much influence and leverage as it used to," he says. "And for that reason, they don't have to listen to the U.S.; they can defy the U.S."

That's because the Arab world is writing its own history again. The first chapter is about domestic politics, propelled by a popular demand for more accountable governments. Public opinion is going to count, says Greg Gause, at a time when anti-American sentiments are high.

"Now, if you ask me, is the Arab Spring good for America or bad for America, I'd have to say in the short-term, it's bad for America," Gause says.

His policy advice — and the title of his most recent piece on foreign policy — comes from Alice in Wonderland, in a saying by the White Rabbit: "Don't just do something; stand there."

"My policy advice is not to overreact, to not try to direct this in a certain way," he says. "Because I don't think we have the power, I don't think we have the local allies, and until the dust settles, and until they have stable governments that then are going to engage in their own foreign policies, perhaps the best thing we can do is let that happen."

It was the power of American technology that helped drive the revolts — Google, Facebook and Twitter — and shared American values that shaped the demands of the demonstrators. Now, the question of American interests will be determined, in part, by a new Middle East that is likely to be more democratic, more Islamist and perhaps more volatile than ever.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.