The pro-democracy revolutions in Northern Africa and the Middle East have been a big problem for the region’s assorted dictators, but may well be an even bigger problem for the US, whose leaders don’t have the luxury of simply fleeing to Saudi Arabia with a big chunk of the national treasury when things turn sour.
The only comparison for the US can be to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in which the US backed Shah was ousted in favor of a Shi’ite theocracy. In this case, however, President Obama must contend with unrest in not one, but several key allied nations.
For decades it seemed that the US was able to keep its authoritarian allies propped up more or less indefinitely, but the simmering unrest combined with crumbling economies across the region have combined to produce a region-wide phenomenon, where every US-backed dictator appears at risk.
But in the near term, it is two of the most important President-for-life figures, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, that are at the most risk. In each case the US is giving lip-service to the notion of some “reforms” but are conceding they won’t want anything that might threaten the rule of their allies, particularly any pesky elections.
Officials are concerned with what sorts of governments might emerge in those nations, surely, but the bigger problem is that giving a meaningful political voice to tens of millions of people who have spent decades being repressed by US-backed dictators is going to yield governments, regardless of their general policies, will insist on independence from US regional policy.