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Obama Warns Autocratic Rulers: 'World Is Changing'

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama has told 'friend and foe alike' that they need to listen to their citizens' calls for democracy.

U.S. President Barack Obama has told 'friend and foe alike' that they need to listen to their citizens' calls for democracy.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a warning to autocratic rulers that they cannot maintain their hold on power through coercion and must recognize the "world is changing."

In a wide-ranging and unscheduled press conference in Washington, Obama addressed the growing democracy movement across the Middle East and spoke directly to the presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs who are facing the wrath of their citizens.

"You can't maintain power through coercion. At some level in any society, there has to be consent," he said, adding, "That's particularly true in this new era where people can communicate not just through some centralized government or state run TV, but they can get on a smartphone or a Twitter account and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people."

During the hour-long press conference, Obama defended his administration's position toward Egypt during nearly three weeks of protests that on February 11 brought down longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak -- an authoritarian figure who had governed for 30 years with an iron fist.

The Egyptian revolution, which came on the heels of a similar upheaval in Tunisia, has inspired pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen and calls for similar action in Syria and Libya. It's even breathed new life into Iran's opposition movement.

The White House struggled with how to react to the growing unrest in Egypt; Administration officials, including Obama, seemed unsure how forcefully to urge Mubarak to accede to demands that he step down immediately. Critics have accused Obama of not supporting the protesters enough.

An anti-government protester dances with a soldier during celebrations on Cairo's Tahrir Square,

But today Obama said "at each juncture' in the unfolding revolution, the United States "calibrated just about right."

"We were on the right side of history," he said.

Ahead Of The Curve

The upheaval in Egypt shone a bright spotlight on the contradiction of Washington's benevolent policy toward dictatorial rulers who maintain stability and provide the United States with key footholds in the region.

In a sign that policy may be undergoing a rethink, Obama cast his administration as on the side of pro-democracy protesters everywhere, even those whose desire for freedom and democracy translates into a demand to dismantle governments allied with the United States.

"The message that we've sent even before the demonstrations in Egypt has been, to friend and foe alike, that the world is changing -- that you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries you've got to get out ahead of change, you can't be behind the curve," he said.

In a reference to the increasing number of countries that are experiencing a wave of democracy activism, Obama urged rulers to respond peacefully to protesters and said the United States will always support citizens' right to free speech and freedom of assembly, which "allows people to share their grievances with the government."

He also addressed the latest round of demonstrations in Iran by opponents of the regime, which has led to two deaths and calls in parliament for the execution of two opposition leaders. Obama said he found it “ironic” that Tehran praised the Egyptian demonstrators and are now “gunning down and beating people” who are trying to express themselves peacefully in their own country.

"What has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran, which is that people should be able to express their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government," he said.

Stability, But First, Upheaval

The latest Arab country to be gripped by antigovernment anger is Bahrain, a Persian Gulf country of about a million people -- half of whom are foreign 'guest' workers. The country is ruled by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, his royal family, and ruling elite, most of whom are Sunni. Some 70 percent of the population is Shi'ite.

On February 15, a crowd estimated at 10,000 marched into the capital, Manama, spurred on by the death of a demonstrator who was killed in clashes with police the day before. That death had followed an earlier killing of a protester by security police at an antigovernment rally.

Angry mourners chanted antigovernment slogans that were clearly inspired by Egyptians and Tunisians, including: "The people demand the fall of the regime!" and, "We're not Sunni, we're not Shi'a, we just want to be free."

Protesters also want a new constitution and democratic reforms, but their key demand is the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has governed the country since its independence in 1971.

Similar scenes are unfolding in Yemen, where police officers wielding wooden batons on February 15 prevented hundreds of antigovernment protesters from marching near the university in the capital, and a group of pro-regime demonstrators threw stones at security forces.

In the country's south, hundreds of protesters continued to camp out on the street in the city of Taiz, vowing to remain there until President Ali Abdullah Saleh is removed from power. Saleh has promised to step down by 2013 in response to earlier demonstrations.

Obama offered some advice to the region's embattled rulers, but also said the United States "can't dictate" what governments do. "Utimately, these are sovereign countries," he said.

"I think that the thing that will actually achieve stability in that region is if young people, if ordinary folks, end up feeling that there are pathways for them to feed their families, get a decent job, get an education, aspire to a better life. And the more steps these governments are taking to provide these avenues for mobility and opportunity, the more stable these countries are," he said.

A stable Middle East is what Washington wants, but the road to stability often passes through government upheaval. In a region bristling with threats from terrorists, Islamic extremists, and nuclear ambitions, that may be hard for the White House to watch.

As Obama himself put it, "Democracy is messy."

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