WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tunisia’s political upheaval may give the United States fresh ammunition to argue that Arab autocrats should loosen up but it is unclear how forcefully Washington may make that case or whether anyone will heed it.
U.S. officials said it was too early to say what lessons to draw from the toppling of Tunisia’s Zine-al Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on January 14 after street demonstrations ignited by a fruit and vegetable seller who set himself on fire to protest the police confiscation of his cart.
The possibility -- which has yet to materialize -- that the broad political protests in the North African nation may spread elsewhere in the Middle East initially dragged down currency, stock and bond prices in the region, notably in Egypt.
U.S. officials said the Obama administration was still watching and waiting to see how the events in Tunisia may play out and suggested it may be premature to draw any conclusions.
“I would be very hesitant to draw any cosmic message out of the Tunisia case except to say that there are issues and themes that resonate throughout the area,” said one official, citing the desire of people to have the right to demonstrate, to participate in politics and to earn a decent living.
“It’s a bit presumptuous for us to say there are lessons in Tunisia that you need to draw from,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But other U.S. officials said the United States could well use the Tunisian example to buttress its case that Arab nations should open up their political systems, fight corruption and create more economic opportunity.
“Tunisia gives our arguments and our talking points greater resonance,” a second official said.
This official, and others, said it was not clear that Arab leaders would see the Tunisian revolt as a signal to embrace democratic freedoms, something the United States has long advocated despite its simultaneous willingness to work with authoritarian regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“They’ll try to use it but I don’t know how hard they’ll press that case because I have a feeling that the regimes in the region may not take from this the lesson that they need to open up,” said a congressional aide.
“They may take from this the lesson that they need to be more clever about how they go about the business of autocracy,” the aide said.
Another risk that weighs on U.S. policymakers, though they seldom voice it in public, is that more democracy in the Arab would yield Islamist governments hostile to the United States.
“The concern about the Iran model still lurks,” the aide added. “It will somewhat temper the administration’s message. ... Everyone wants to see more openness in these countries; nobody wants to see an Islamist take over.”
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution brought to power an anti-American regime that Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism, fomenting violence in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories and seeking nuclear arms.
Iran says its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.
George Christou, a strategist at Barclays Capital in London who focuses on Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said major equity markets in the region, including in Egypt and Morocco, had been depressed to some extent by the events in Tunisia.
“In the short run, and I define that by maybe one to three months, investors are going to continue to reprice risk in the region,” he said.
“Beyond that, it will depend on how some of the bigger countries deal with the situation, most notably Egypt.”
Egypt’s main stock index advanced s 0.8 percent at the end of a week of declines that dragged it down 7.1 percent on concern that Tunisia’s political turmoil might spread.
One U.S. official described the administration’s dilemma in the region as “the Egypt conundrum.”
“Strongman repression or Islamic extremism. Which is worse?” he asked.
Egypt has been ruled by President Hosni Mubarak, a former air force officer, since he took control of the most populous Arab state in 1981 after the assassination of another former military man, President Anwar Sadat, by Muslim militants.
Though Egypt holds regular elections, power has since 1952 passed uninterrupted to the heirs of the military coup which overthrew King Farouk. The main opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned.
In Qatar one day before Ben Ali fled, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said states in the region must shake up corrupt institutions and reinvigorate their “stagnant” political systems or risk losing the future to Islamic militants.
While calling for free and fair elections in Tunisia, the Obama administration has avoided repeating Clinton’s harsh rhetoric.
U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Egypt’s Mubarak on Tuesday and analysts said it appeared he wanted to tread carefully.
“The administration has certainly sent signals that it is not going to take the opportunity that Tunisia presents ... to press the Egyptians or the Jordanians,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They may be having conversations privately, but they certainly do not seem to be inclined to do this in any real voluble way,” he said.