January 30, 2011

Egypt in turmoil: a test of U.S. public diplomacy

With Egypt in turmoil and Tunisia facing an uncertain political future, the United States is facing the greatest challenge to its public diplomacy in the Arab world. For its strategic interests and to keep oil flowing, the U.S. has always supported dictators, autocrats and monarchs in the Middle East, much to the chagrin of common people.
Hosni Mubarak, who seems to be on his last leg, ruled Egypt for no less than 28 years with full support from the U.S. (Egypt has been the largest U.S. aid recipient after Israel.) Started in Tunisia earlier this month, people's uprising is giving sleepless nights to monarchs and dictators in the Arab world.
But the U.S. seems nonplussed because it always cultivated relations with Arab rulers instead of Arab people. President Barack Obama's earlier response was that "the U.S. is not taking sides in Egypt" (as quoted by NPR) when Mubarack still seemed to be strong. However, now that the dictator's fall seems fairly certain, the U.S. president says the people of Egypt have the rights to peaceful assembly and association, to free speech and to determine their own fate.
In other words, now the U.S. stands by the people of Egypt, not Mubarak on whom Washington always counted. Mubarak and others like him in Middle East have never allowed opposition to organize and groom an alternative leadership. That is the reason that in Tunisia things are murky, Egypt is facing uncertainty while the rest of Arab countries are having their fingers crossed.
Some commentators call it "people's revolution" unfolding, but who are going to replace the dictators? The only opposition force in Middle East are Islamists/fundamentalists apart from army. This is the challenge that the U.S. is facing. If Islamic Brotherhood swings into action to lead anti-Mubarak uprising, how the U.S. will respond? If army topples the Mubarak regime and impose martial law, what options the U.S. has in such a scenario? If elections are held and these Islamists come to power, how the U.S. will react?
To stave off anti-American feelings in the streets of Middle East, the U.S. has to use its "soft power" by living up to its political values and letting not its foreign policy undercut its cultural values. Now that anti-Americanism is at its peak in Muslim world, it is because the U.S. compromised its public diplomacy for strategic and political expediencies. There has been contradictions between its foreign policy and other tools of its public diplomacy namely cultural and political values.
Crises also bring opportunities in their wake, and the U.S. has now this rare opportunity to stand by the Arab people to chose their future.

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