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How much does Obama value freedom? Arab uprisings will be his test.

The overall endgame in the Middle East is not clear. But as the region is engulfed in radical change, the Obama administration faces a policy dilemma: Should it encourage the progression to democracy, or preserve autocratic leaders who offer allegiance to the US?

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Tyrants beware. That is the dramatic lesson from turmoil in the Arab world for those rulers who maintain power by diktat instead of democracy.

First came Tunisia’s revolt against dictatorship, then Egypt’s. Then stirrings in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain. In Libya a defiant and delusional dictator hurled air power and mercenaries against street protesters. The non-Arab regime in Muslim Iran, with hollow hypocrisy, trumpeted Egypt’s freedom movement then assaulted and imprisoned its own protesters who demanded the same.

The overall endgame in the Middle East is not clear. But as the region is engulfed in radical change fomented by digital technology, what should America do now?

Nine countries in the Middle East where 'winds of change' are blowing

Libya’s oil fields are an obvious concern. But the first priority is Egypt, the heartland of the Arab world. The United States should speak out in support of a free press, the oxygen of democracy, along with a new constitution, free elections, a government responsive to the people, and an independent judiciary. If Egypt asks for help in establishing the infrastructure of democracy, the US should provide it generously, without fanfare. The most significant US contribution may be to quietly press the Egyptian military to protect the new order, not rule it.

As other nations of the Middle East awake, the Obama administration faces a policy dilemma. Which is paramount: encouraging the progression to democracy, or preserving autocratic leaders who offer allegiance to the US? Though the fast-moving transition in Egypt was admittedly difficult to read from day to day, the Obama administration appeared to wobble between the two. The president seemed to champion the spirit of the anti-Mubarak protesters, while the professional diplomats anguished over the precipitate removal of a friendly Egyptian president.

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