Noah Millman has written a very good post on Tunisia and the possibility of a “wave” of democratization in other Arab countries. He concludes:
In other words: the international political context matters. The United States’ willingness to see Ferdinand Marcos go was crucial to his departure, and that willingness was an expression of confidence – confidence that the end to the Marcos regime would not mean a pro-Communist Philippines. That confidence, in turn, was in part the result of changes in the larger dynamic of the Cold War. So if you want to see greater democratization in the Arab world, the crucial change in political context has to be less concern in the West about the rise of political Islam.
That’s right, but I would add to this that there would also have to be much less concern for the foreign policy orientation of new democratic governments as well, and that seems even less likely than decreased concern about Islamism. Islamist or not, if a new Egyptian or Jordanian or Saudi government were likely to be ill-disposed towards serving as a support for U.S. influence in the region, the U.S. and other allies would try to prevent its formation or would try to organize a coalition of countries to isolate and punish that country. An Islamist government in any of these places would probably also align itself differently, but the more important factor is the alignment of the government in its international relations rather than its ideology.
To be specific, as long as a new Egyptian government continued to be at peace with Israel and remained opposed to growing Iranian influence, the domestic political program of that government would not become a major impediment to continued good relations with Washington. If, on the other hand, a new Egyptian government tried to reclaim its role as a regional mediator and started competing with Turkey as a regional power, the U.S. might be faced with increasingly independent Egyptian and Turkish foreign policies. Considering how short-sighted and foolish Washington’s response to recent Turkish actions has been, we shouldn’t expect a better response if a democratic Egypt started acting the same way. The U.S. might anticipate these problems when there is a serious domestic challenge to the current Egyptian government and decide that it’s not worth taking the chance that Egypt might act too independently. Of course, in the end Mubarak’s regime will depend most on the loyalty of the military, and by all accounts the military remains a pillar of the regime. Until that changes, the U.S. response is neither here nor there.
One important factor in the apparent success (so far) of the Tunisian uprising is that the U.S. was not heavily invested enough in Ben Ali’s survival, and despite French complicity in Ben Ali’s regime the French government was in no position politically to launch an intervention to keep Ben Ali in power. The external support for many other authoritarian governments and monarchies in the region would be much greater, because the fear of how a new, more popular government might change its relations with the U.S. would dictate a policy of trying to shore up the old order or to restore a deposed ruler or a member of his family.