Arab reform 'poses big risks for US'

2011-02-03 13:14

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Washington - The apparent sea change in the Arab world, given the popular revolt in Tunisia and ongoing rebellion in Egypt, could transform the region in a way not favourable to Washington, analysts warned.

As well as Egypt and Tunisia, observers are keeping a close eye on US allies Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and notably Jordan - the only Arab country outside Egypt that has a peace pact with Israel.

If the United States only pays lip-service to pro-democracy movements in the region and fails to align with them, it will "be perceived as a receding power having little influence," said conservative analyst Danielle Pletka.

Washington is reluctant to denounce Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak because he is a key long-time ally in a vital region and a crucial partner in efforts to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

There is also deep Western suspicion about the main Egyptian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly with regard to the Islamist movement's dim view of Israel.

Easing Western fears

Leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei sought on Wednesday to ease Western fears that a new Egypt would turn against Israel and the United States.

"The hype that once Egypt becomes a democracy, it will become hostile to the US and hostile to Israel... these are the two hypes, and are fictions," ElBaradei told CBS News.

Observers agreed that Mubarak was playing up Western fears over the Muslim Brotherhood to shore up US backing for a slower transition, but some felt Washington was also right to be concerned.

"There is a fear in the United States that the Muslim Brotherhood could gain power and that a change in leadership will impact Egypt's relations with Israel. Both of these fears are greatly exaggerated," Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Foundation, said.

"These are the concerns that have kept Washington from putting pressure on the Mubarak regime for all these years," noted Ottaway, who is director of the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

'Very big deal'

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, told the Daily Beast online magazine that "baloney and wishful thinking aside, the MB (Muslim Brotherhood) would be calamitous for US security".

The group supports "Hamas and other terrorist groups, makes friendly noises to Iranian dictators and torturers, would be uncertain landlords of the critical Suez Canal, and opposes the Egyptian-Israeli agreement of 1979, widely regarded as the foundation of peace in the Mideast," he said.

"Above all, the MB would endanger counterterrorism efforts in the region and worldwide. That is a very big deal."

The push to support free elections and democratic reform in the Arab world was the calling card of the George W Bush White House throughout the 2000s.

It was used often as reasoning and explanation for the controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the overthrow of its long-time dictator Saddam Hussein.

'Critical of US position'

President Barack Obama backed democratic reform in the Middle East from the start of his administration. Delivering a keynote speech in Cairo in June 2009 that aimed to rebuild the US image in the region, he called for regimes to be responsive to its citizen's "aspirations".

In recent days, however, as violence on the Egyptian street has escalated, pro-democracy advocates have criticised what they see as a pale response from the Obama White House.

"The United States is playing its hand badly right now - the Obama administration has managed to turn the crowds against the United States," said Ottaway.

"The protests did not start this way, but there are more and more anti-American messages. Egyptians are increasingly critical of the position Washington is taking."

Read more on:    hosni mubarak  |  mohamed elbaradei  |  barack obama  |  tunisia  |  us  |  egypt
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