It is now clear that a wave of democratization is sweeping across the Arab world. What began in Tunisia with the exile of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has now spread to Arab and Muslim capitals from Cairo to Tehran. The world has not seen a democratic wave like this since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago.
Right now, it looks like Libyan dictator Mohammar Qaddafi, who has ruled his country with an iron fist, is about to be the next Arab despot to get thrown out. Michael Totten has an inside view into Qaddafi’s Libya, and it isn’t pretty. It’s telling that Qaddafi is playing the tyrant right to the inevitable bitter end: instead of leaving in exile, Qaddafi has ordered his forces to massacre civilians. With luck, that action will land Qaddafi a date with an angry mob and a lamppost rather than a comfortable villa in some tropical location.
That strategy isn’t exactly working for Qaddafi. His own diplomats are denouncing him, and two Libyan fighter pilots have defected to Malta rather than fire on protesters. Once the military begins defecting, it’s usually a sign that a regime is on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, many on the right are worried about Islamist influences taking over the Egyptian revolution. And while the fears about the Muslim Brotherhood are usually overblown there is cause to be very cautious. As Foreign Affairs notes, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the monolithic organization it’s made out to be. But at the same time, there are undeniably Islamist elements in the Muslim Brotherhood, and they are organized.
The Absent President
But what continues to be troubling is the absence of American leadership in this delicate time. The Obama Administration’s mixed messages over Egypt’s revolution has discredited them in the eyes of many of the democratic reformers than we will need to win over. By failing to support the Egyptian protesters early on, the Obama Administration ceded valuable ground to the Islamists who were late to the revolution but are now positioned to seize the initiative.
For all the talk about Obama’s “smart diplomacy,” we haven’t seen much of either. Right now, the United States should be enforcing a “no-fly” zone over Libya—but so far, the Obama Administration has been as weak on Libya as they were on Egypt. Now is not the time for mealy-mouthed platitudes or half-measures. It used to be that the President of the United States would unapologetically stand on the side of pro-democracy movements. Now, our government keeps sending mixed messages.
Where Does This Wave Lead?
The Middle East stands at an inflection point. Arab and Muslim dictators are dropping like flies, and the idea that Hosni Mubarak and Mohammar Qaddafi could end up being overthrown within the space of a few weeks would have been unthinkable not all that long ago. But even though many have been waiting for this moment for years, it is fraught with danger. Right now, the popular movements that are sweeping across the region are leaning in the direction of democracy. But the longer the West delays, the more anti-democratic forces have the opportunity to seize the initiative.
Now is the time for the West, and especially the United States, to make its position clear. The only legitimate governments are those governments that respect the wishes of their people. Our position should be the same as the protesters currently risking their lives in Tehran: death to dictators.