- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2011

As protests continue on the streets of Tunisia, U.S. policymakers are weighing their response to the crisis, seeking to chart a course supportive of demands for democratic reform without sacrificing other U.S. goals — or allies — in the region.

The Tunisian army fired warning shots over the heads of demonstrators outside the headquarters of the long-ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party in the capital, Tunis, on Thursday, as the Cabinet of the country’s new unity government met for the first time.

State television reported that eight ministers in the government had quit the party in an apparent attempt to distance themselves from the 23-year rule of its leader, former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia last week after the military refused to crush a weeks-old wave of protests.

U.S. officials so far have taken a low-key approach to what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution, welcoming — in the words of a White House statement — the “brave and determined struggle” by protesters, and condemning the use of violence against them.

But neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has personally addressed the situation in public during a week in which a crowded Washington agenda was dominated by the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and domestic politics.

** FILE ** Armed Tunisian protesters shout slogans against members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally party on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011, in Tunis, Tunisia. The party was founded by ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** Armed Tunisian protesters shout slogans against members of the ... more >

State Department officials Thursday said they would offer technical support for forthcoming elections in Tunisia and that they were monitoring the situation closely.

“The interim government is undertaking a transition and taking steps to move the country in a fundamentally new direction,” spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Washington Times in e-mail. “The United States is prepared to help, for example, with expertise regarding credible election planning. But the change will originate inside Tunisia.”

There was concern among some observers that the turmoil could spread to other countries in the region, where more is at stake for the United States.

Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said supporting the protests in “secondary ally” Tunisia is a “cost-free policy for the administration to pursue,” but “serious strategic interests” would be implicated by similar events in several neighboring states.

“Suddenly, these regimes do look unstable,” he said of key U.S. allies with authoritarian governments, such as Egypt and Jordan.

Haim Malka, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that other Arab autocracies “tend to use a greater combination of incentives and police action to maintain control” than Mr. Ben Ali — who “used very few political tools beyond fear and repression” — had done in Tunisia.

“Most importantly, these regimes allow greater space for political participation,” he said. “The question neighboring leaders are surely asking this week is whether Ben Ali fell because he was too brutal, or because he wasn’t brutal enough at the first sign of trouble.”

Last week in Doha,Qatar, Mrs. Clinton called on Arab leaders to institute reforms.

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she said, just one day before Mr. Ben Ali fled.

Mr. Cook warned that the United States might be missing a chance to drive home that message.

Story Continues →