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[David Ignatius] Egypt seen through Obama’s lens

WASHINGTON ― As President Obama watched events unfold this past week in Egypt and the surrounding Arab world, he is said to have reflected on his own boyhood experiences in Indonesia ― when the country was ruled by a corrupt, authoritarian leader who was later toppled by a reform movement. 

Obama looks at the Egyptian drama through an unusual lens. He has experienced dictatorship first-hand, a world where “the strong man takes the weak man’s land,” as he quoted his Indonesian stepfather in his autobiography. The president came of age reading Frantz Fanon and other theorists of radical change. He is sometimes described as a “post-racial” figure, but it’s also helpful to think of him as a “post-colonial” man.

Obama’s policy decisions over the past several weeks have been guided by a sense that the fissures in Egyptian and Arab society have been building for a long time, and that, as one person familiar with his thinking says, “this is not something that can be put back in a box.”

While Obama thinks it’s important to protect U.S. interests amid the turbulence, he believes that as a democracy, the United States can’t respond in the narrow way that, say, China would. He is said to have ended several meetings in the Situation Room over the past week with an admonition to think broadly about the process of change that’s under way now, and align U.S. policy with these larger themes.

The formative experiences of Obama’s life tell him that change in developing countries is inexorable, and that reform can often succeed. Not every popular movement turns out as disastrously as the Iranian revolution of 1979, Obama believes. There are positive models, including the “people power” movement that replaced Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the overthrow in 1998 of the dictatorial President Suhartro in Indonesia, whom Obama remembers from his boyhood.

What shapes Obama’s thinking isn’t ideological so much as personal: When he talks to human-rights activists from overseas, he often recalls what it was like to live in an authoritarian country ― where even in seemingly calm times, there was an omnipresent fear and tension. His Indonesian stepfather, Lolo, once admitted that he had seen a man killed “because he was weak.”

The lesson that Obama takes from Indonesia’s democratic revolt is that when the grip of authoritarian government has been loosened, it can’t easily be restored: A catharsis takes place that, over time, can lead to better governance and economic growth.

If Obama hasn’t publicly articulated these broad themes lately, that’s partly due to the rush of events ― and also because of his reticent manner. He is not a man who likes to govern by anecdote. Critics have argued that Obama has been too slow to embrace the Egyptian protest movement. But he seems genuinely to believe that change is a matter for Egyptians, not Americans, and that too heavy an American hand would be counterproductive.

For a statement of the strategic ideas that guide Obama now, it’s useful to re-read his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009. The premise of that celebrated address was that America’s relationship with the Islamic world was broken. “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said. That’s still the baseline, but it’s fair to say that the Cairo speech raised expectations in the Arab world without delivering on them. Indeed, this may be one modest factor in the “revolution of rising expectations” we are seeing on the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa and Amman.

Obama’s personal history gives him a unique opportunity to connect with the young generation that is making this volatile revolution. But it also makes Obama uniquely vulnerable to the charge that he is putting American security second to his hopes for an ephemeral process of change that could prove disastrous for American interests. The scenes last week of young protesters manning the barricades in Tahrir Square evoked “Les Miserables” or “Dr. Zhivago.” But we know those stories turned out badly for the good guys.

Obama’s challenge is to use his life experience ― and his unusual ability as a communicator ― to brace this process of change. He can identify with the idealistic young rebels in the street, but he also needs to reassure the world that American power is a steadying force at a time of upheaval.

David Ignatius’ e-mail address is ― Ed.

(Washington Post Writers Group)