If a regime as repressive as the Iranian theocracy can’t keep democracy activists from staging massive protests over a rigged election, could Arab nations see similar movements in the near future?  The Washington Post reports that people throughout the Middle East have watched events unfold in Iran with awe and more than a little envy.  But they are sure of one thing — the current administration will be of little use to them in promoting reform:

Across the Arab world, Iran’s massive opposition protests have triggered a wave of soul-searching and conflicting emotions. Many question why their own reform movements are unable to rally people to rise up against unpopular authoritarian regimes. In Egypt, the cradle of what was once the Arab world’s most ambitious push for democracy, Iran’s protests have served as a reminder of how much the notion has unraveled under President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 30 years.

“I am extremely jealous,” said Nayra El Sheikh, 28, a blogger and Sharkawy’s wife. “I can’t help but think: Why not us? What do they have that we don’t have? Do they have more guts?”

The frustration comes against a backdrop of deep-rooted skepticism among pro-democracy activists that U.S. policies under President Obama will help transform the region, despite his vow to engage the Muslim world in a highly publicized speech here last month. Some view Obama’s response to Iran’s protests, muted until Tuesday, as a harbinger of U.S. attitudes toward their own efforts to reform their political systems. The Egyptian government, they note, is a key American ally, and U.S. pressure on Egypt for reforms began subsiding in the last years of the Bush administration.

“When Obama does not take a stance, the very next day these oppressive regimes will regard this as a signal. This is a test for his government,” said Ayman Nour, a noted Egyptian opposition politician who was recently released from jail. “If they can turn a blind eye to their enemy, they can turn a blind eye to any action here in Egypt.”

Barack Obama finally did issue the kind of strong signal we expected, about a week later, which is a signal of another kind.  The world watched the US to see what we would do, to see what values we would defend outside our own self-interest.  In the event, our President made it clear that he valued dealing with the regimes rather than supporting democratization, even through non-violent means.

Obama’s supporters defended his inaction, claiming that any show of support would stigmatize the Iranian opposition.  The problem, however, is that Obama’s insistence that he wanted to work with the mullahs gave the regime more legitimacy, and disheartened those who want to bring hope and change to the Middle East.  And for what?  The mullahs blame the CIA anyway, and have from the start insisted that the protesters are part of a Western plot arranged by the US and Great Britain.  Oddly, though, Obama’s supporters have been busy trying to convince people that Obama had always talked this strongly about the Iranian protests, turning on a dime from before Tuesday when they stoutly defended his diffidence as wise realpolitik.

Those fighting for democracy in oppressive regimes expect more from America than cozying up to oppressors.  “Engagement” to them sounds an awful lot like “propping up the dictators,” a policy that keeps them chained.  Iran shows them that they’ll have no support from the US if they plan on reforming the Middle East, not unless Obama gets dragged to the podium for even a condemnation of human-rights violations.  That was the message Barack Obama sent the world over the past two weeks.