Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt's authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration's alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime's heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis's efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The "Tunisia scenario" is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.
But the Post's op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?
Perhaps they've had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It's far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women's rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia's absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration's signature democracy promotion initiative.
This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it's worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.
But the worries of official Washington shouldn't apply to advocates and analysts, particularly those who have long demanded a stronger role for the United States on Egyptian democracy regardless of the strategic implications. So what do such voices for Egyptian democracy and Arab reform think about Tunisia? They can't shy away from Tunisia simply because it isn't Egypt. Tunisia is topic number one with Arab publics today, even if it isn't yet in Washington, and Arab audiences keenly notice their silence. If U.S. advocates of Arab democracy don't step up to draw attention to Tunisia's protests, it will only reinforce the skeptical view that their advocacy of Arab democracy is mainly about putting pressure on Hosni Mubarak or scoring points against the Obama administration. And that will weaken any future advocacy.
And along those lines, here's a genuine question: If the Obama administration decides to tacitly or overtly side with the protesters and Ben Ali's regime falls, will these Washington voices for Arab democracy applaud the change or will they attack Obama for selling out a secular ally? How deep does U.S. support for Arab democratic change really go?
UPDATE, January 14, 6:30am: This morning, the Post's Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl responds with a strong column, acknowledging that "the most imminent threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East is not war; it is revolution." Diehl surveys the events rocking the region -- with some gracious links to FP -- placing the Tunisian protests in a series of "threats" including Lebanon and Iran. It's genuinely good to see the issue finally addressed, and I'm glad to see Diehl step up to the issue. But is "threat" to U.S. interests and Obama's reform record really the right frame for this? Diehl concludes that "It may be too late for the United States to head off a rolling social upheaval in the Middle East this year ... but if it follows up on what Clinton has been saying, it can at least place itself on the right side of those events." But after years of agitating for democratic reform, placing the Tunisian uprisings as a threat seems inadequate. Are the demonstrations against Ben Ali only a "threat" to U.S. interests and not an opportunity for the democratic change about which we hear so much? Let's see this conversation continue.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.