News / Middle East

Change in Egypt Focuses Attention on Other Countries in Middle East

Anti-government protester shout slogans during a demonstration in Sanaa, February 15, 2011
Anti-government protester shout slogans during a demonstration in Sanaa, February 15, 2011

New anti-government protests are springing up in the Middle East in the wake the massive protests and leadership change in Egypt. And that presents both opportunities and obstacles for U.S. foreign policy in the region.

One country, one people's demand for change.  The U.S. government initially reacted with caution to the Egyptian protests -- until near the end, when President Barack Obama made it clear that he supported a new government. "The people of Egypt have spoken.  Their voices have been heard," he said.

And others are being heard -- across the Middle East. That leaves the Obama administration to decide how to respond, and whom to support.

In Bahrain, riot police interrupt what started out as peaceful demonstrations.  Police killed  two protesters in the first two days.

In Yemen, battles are between student protesters, government loyalists and police.  Demonstrators want the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has already agreed not to seek re-election.

Amateur video in Libya, show protesters calling for the outster of Moammar Gadhafi, their country's leader for the last 42 years.  

Police beat back mainly Shi'ite protesters who took to the streets in Tehran.   The protests there are the largest in Iran since the 2009 disputed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian police violence brought a rebuke from Mr. Obama. "I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt, by gunning down and beating a people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Irank," Mr. Obama said.

James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation says the president should go further.  "The U.S. should continue maximum pressure on the regime to try to drive a wedge between regime and its people.  [They] can do that through increased sanctions at the U.N. Security Council," he said.

But U.S. policy in the Middle East makes different demands on different countries. "So with our friends, we have a very consistent message: There has to be change," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with the U.S. government funded al-Hurra TV.

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute says that makes the U.S. policy seem uneven.  "The governments that are in trouble are the governments that have supported us and whose support we have insisted upon as we have pursued policies that were wildly unpopular at home.  So to now switch sides just is unseemly," he said.

Zogby says that results in people being upset at the U.S. for supporting autocratic rulers, and the rulers upset at the U.S. for  supporting protesters when the momentum changes.

Zogby also says the U.S. loses credibility in the Arab world for not criticizing Israel and moving the peace process forward. "We should be voting for, not against the U.N. resolution on settlements and back up that with clout," he said.

U.S. foreign policy, and America's support for Israel, are always part of the equation in the Middle East. And the Obama administration says once change takes hold in the region, protesters will put their energy toward new opportunities, instead of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments. Right now, the possibility of new opportunities is what fuels protests there.

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