A couple of weeks ago, Tunisia became the first Arab nation to succeed in shaking off decades of debilitating dictatorship through a popular uprising that sent shock waves through the entire region.
Egyptians who have long voiced discontent with their government are now taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers demanding change. If Egypt succeeds, analysts agree that a domino effect is likely.
Having withered decades of institutionalized corruption, police brutality and lack of freedoms under despotic regimes, Arab citizenries are finally beginning to believe that freedom and democracy are within reach. Their demands are straight-forward: democratically elected governments that truly represent and serve their citizens, in place of apathetic despots that work against the interests of their own citizens. They dream of free elections, government transparency, bureaucratic accountability, and rule of law.
It is perplexing that in the ensuing confrontation between citizens longing for democracy and iron-fisted dictators clamping down on dissent in the Arab world, the US official policy is to side with the dictators.
From the perspective of US interests, it is a severely misguided policy that could soon prove its short-sightedness.
To a certain extent, the US government’s blurry vision when it comes to the Arab world is a victim of its own simplistic two-bit approach to the region: lust for oil and fear of Islamism. As such, “good” regimes are ones that facilitate our access to the region’s natural resources, and that successfully crack down on Islamist movements. From Ben Ali to Mubarak to King Abdullah, that seems to be enough to declare them our “allies.”
Whether in Congress or in the media, our public discourse on the Middle East is so skewed exclusively in these two directions, it almost comes off as willful ignorance.
Despite evidence on the ground that is increasingly hard to miss, we have somehow convinced ourselves that the Arab world suffers from an inherent aversion to Western freedoms and a burning desire to turn back the clock to a medieval caliphate. Our close relationship with Israel and its lobby in Washington, in whose best interest it is to actively reinforce this minimalist misconception at every opportunity, further limits our reading of the region and sets up the intellectual justification for our policy of supporting autocratic Arab regimes who fulfill these two criteria. Naturally, the Arab dictators have themselves lobbied hard to convince Washington that they are the only viable alternative to violent Islamist rule.
But the successful populist revolt in Tunisia and the organic push for democracy in Egypt are offering an entirely different reality; one that should act as a wake up call for the US to quickly reassess its approach.
In Tunisia, the Jasmin Revolution was not ideologically religious in nature, nor was it hatched by opposition parties. It was a raw expression of everyday Tunisian citizens from every walk of life who rose up in one voice demanding civic reform, freedom, dignity, and democracy.
Similarly, in Egypt, demand for change has little to do with religion or the West, and everything to do with fair wages, just government, free democratic elections, and constitutional oversight.
Better informed by unprecedented access to alternative media via the Internet and satellite, and buoyed by the nimbleness of social media like Facebook and Twitter, Tunisians, Egyptians and other Arabs are better able to communicate their grievances (which are primarily of a civic nature) and effectively mobilize their dissent beyond the otherwise watertight state control of mass media and means of communication.
The Arab masses, who are more astute than we give them credit for, want us to know that our hypocrisy when it comes to their region is not missed upon them. On one hand they see the US paying lip-service to flowery calls for freedom and democracy like Obama did in his State of the Union address and Bush before him; on the other, they note its tacit support for autocrats who deny them just that.
Egyptians were largely turned off, for instance, by US Secretary of State’s Hillary Clinton’s comments on the January 25 popular uprising in Egypt:
“I urge all people to exercise restraint. I support the fundamental right of expression, but our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” said Clinton.
Shukry, an Egyptian activist, responded on Facebook:
“Egyptians do not define epidemic police brutality, torture in prisons, and extrajudicial killings as restraint. We do not consider a government that forces an unelected president on us for over 30 years and that rigs our parliamentary elections to a whopping 97% win for its one party system to be stable. We do not consider firing tear gas and rubber bullets into peaceful demonstrations that demand fair wages and basic dignities for citizens to be a legitimate response to our needs.”
“Compare the American government’s statements and its media coverage of Iran after their corrupt elections and during the Iranian green street protest with that of Egypt for those exact same events,” said Nadia, an Egyptian street protester. “It is not hard to see a double standard.”
Watching endless hours of Egyptian satellite talk shows, talking to scores of Egyptians on the street, and monitoring Facebook groups set up by Egyptian protesters, it is my assessment that Nadia and Shukry have a much more accurate reading of the general sentiments of Egyptians than Hillary Clinton.
Ironically, as Tunisians, Egyptians and other Arabs succeed in their push for freedom and democracy, anti-Americanism may be on the rise. But it is not because of Arab support for terrorism or religious extremism or because of inherent hatred for our Western freedoms as we wish to believe. To the contrary, it is because Arabs, especially the youth who are largely educated and who are leading the push for change, see the US as an enabler of the dictatorships that keep them oppressed — an enemy of their freedoms for short-term strategic gains.
The US would do well to recognize that religious fundamentalism in the Arab world is more served than hindered by oppressive regimes and institutionalized government corruption; that the number one factor contributing to anti-American sentiment among Arab peoples is our support for those regimes; and that America’s image and interests are best served by supporting populist Arab quests for self-determination — not by stifling them. It is in our interest to turn the US from villain to hero, once again respected and looked up to. It is in our interest to not waste our money appeasing certain dictators while spilling our blood deposing others.
With or without us, Arabs will eventually succeed in overthrowing autocratic regimes and installing free democracies in their place. It would be shameful — perhaps even disastrous — if we remain on the wrong side of history.
UPDATE: Since the time of this article’s writing, the State department has improved its rhetoric and called on Mubarak to respect his citizens and introduce reforms. But timid politically correct rhetoric does not make for policy. Though an improvement over Clinton’s initial remarks, it remains as window dressing so long as it comes without action. The US policy of supporting and empowering Mubarak’s dictatorial regime as a “US ally” remains in tact.