Early during the spontaneous eruption of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, it was reported that the search word ‘Egypt’ was nowhere to be found on Chinese internet search engines. Exactly. The Chinese regime couldn’t countenance the thought that its people, specifically its great, educated, professional and working urban populations, might be influenced by popular uprisings based on peaceful mass demonstrations. That’s because the Chinese people are not mollified by the rise in their standard of living and increased material consumption, nor were they conciliated when Mao ruled, long before private markets. A far more powerful, inextinguishable human condition is the need to express oneself freely, to feel one has a voice individually and collectively, to be an active participant in a greater societal and national project. Empowerment is electrifying. This is the real but wasted power of American influence.
It is true that the socio-economic strains of rapid population growth, a bulging youthful population, unemployment, unavailable jobs, stagnant wages, and hopelessness are causes of great frustration and discontent. Poverty provides the context for regime opposition, especially among youthful segments and including Islamists. However, these broad socio-economic processes affecting unsettled politics in the region are contributory factors. Their realization will not quench, in fact heighten, the people’s need for “humanity, dignity, liberty,” as an Egyptian protestor’s sign had written on it. Ideas, values, visions, and political participation galvanize people, whose beliefs and aspirations require open political expression and representation. If Egyptians and Arabs had all the good things, these do not replace the need for freedom of thought, the sustaining impulse to unleash (brutally censored and quashed) creative energy. The more Egyptians became educated, urbanized and electronically connected, the more they, and all Arabs, despised the corrupt, unelected, authoritarian or autocratic regime(s) that rule them. Especially for youth but also for all other members of society, matters of democratic voice and expression, social justice, and identity constitute the core of restlessness among all segments, classes, and groups in Egyptian society. It is this suppression of voice, in fact, that has given rise to the few violent Islamists. This is at the heart of the Egyptian “revolution,” and the Tunisian one before it, and of the brewing disaffection everywhere in the region.
Add to this the failure of Arab elites to deliver on justice, accountability, true independence from chronic foreign interference, real sovereignty and self-determination, national dignity and pride, and their miserable failure regarding the Palestinians, and one has a complete picture of the political sources of agitation. Palestine is a symbol, an embodiment, of the chronic humiliating weakness of the Arab regimes, a symptom of the undemocratic nature of Arab states. How can Arabs, any more than Americans or Chinese or Russians concerning theirs, simply be sidelined decade after decade, as their ethnic kin are brutalized and dispossessed with impunity in Palestine, obliterated in Lebanon, or invaded without cause as in Iraq? Feelings of injustice and indignity are visceral throughout the region, but it all starts with creating democratic institutions at home that, it is hoped, would jettison obscene political elite luxury, massive private ownership of state resources, and pervasive patronage networks.
Some say that there is a sea change coming to the Middle East, or that such unfolding of events has not been seen since the post-WWI period when Middle East states and boundaries were arbitrarily established by colonial states, or that Egypt and Tunisia’s are revolutions. A revolution, like the French, Russian, or Iranian, or Egypt’s own in 1952, requires the transformation of the social structures and institutions of state and society from the bottom up. Egypt and Tunisia are none of the above, though they are popular, mass-based peaceful revolts that could potentially end the ancien regime, and whether fundamental regime changes will overtake the region in their wake is far from certain. These two countries, however, portend a neo-nationalism that understands civil society, universalism, human rights, coalition building, independent judiciary, and the need for a pluralist type democratic system that allows cooperation and governance between Islamist and secular socio-political movements and dispositions. The two, Islamic and secular nationalism have increasingly merged and have much in common, including agreement on elections, accountability, social justice, responsive developmental and basic needs. They understand the urgent need for institutions to manage the peaceful competition, possession, and transfer of power that outlive nationalist dictators, charismatic rulers, and monarchs. They understand the need to end, for once and all, the intelligence and security apparatus that is a central feature of the Arab state.
I see the emergence of this liberal neo-nationalism as a cyclical inevitability. The reaction to colonial domination in the second half of the 19th century first led to liberal constitutionalism dominated by the landed aristocracy through the 1940s, followed by authoritarian, bureaucratic nationalism spearheaded by mostly middle class-hailing military officers and whose bankruptcy, ideological exhaustion, and failed promises revived dormant political Islam in the late 1970s. Now, the undefined slogan “Islam is the solution” has lost lustre because of political Islam’s essential cultural and social autocracy, as exemplified in Iran, suggesting a post-Islamist or transformed, more pluralist leaning, Islamist disposition. We have entered a new, more sophisticated form of liberal nationalist disposition, as described. The enduring, unsettled question for the region is that of political authority and legitimacy. This question can begin to be resolved with the ideals, vision, and nuanced political sophistication represented by the Egyptian and Tunisian protestors. The fact that polls repeatedly show overwhelming majorities of people in Muslim countries prefer democracy speaks volumes of the changes in the Arab world.
One would think that this growing temperament towards the concept of a citizenship-based state that serves as the neutral arbiter of conflicting societal interests while protecting individual and minority rights is something the West, particularly the US would jump at, but this is not so. The evidence of history and current policies do not support the reality-subverting narrative of US support for democracy and freedom. The bizarre thing is the prevailing premise that the US is guilty only of pushing—too fast, too slow, somewhere in between? -for democracy and reform in the Middle East, not actively blocking peoples’ human and democratic rights and supporting autocrats who would do its bidding. Obama’s cautious emphasis on managed, incremental reform in the context of an orderly transition surely obviates real, fundamental, democratic change. And this is no accident.
The American national security state is incapable of supporting authentic democratic movements in weak countries it can control, and certainly not in the Middle East, vehemently viewed through the camera obscura of Israel’s needs, desires, fears, hopes and so on. Insistence on facile dichotomies between good and bad, chaos and order, moderate and extremist reflect not reality but advancing perceived interests and camouflaging of the American diktat. Supporting autocrats is a designed policy of hegemony, not the result of dilemmas conveyed to the public as “difficult policy choices.” The essential point is that this bankrupt policy of empire is doomed to an endless cycle of domination and resistance, to the detriment of all sides. Cherished stability and order cannot be had by supporting illegitimate rulers, but by democratic politics in which people choose their own governments, with all the risks and opportunities this implies.
Through it all, the fundamental assumption is of Western innocence forced to deal with Muslim rage rooted in inferiority and cultural defect. Andrew J. Bacevich argues that Americans’ remarkable absence of self-awareness, the delusionary insistence on reluctant empire, constitutes the greatest obstacle to change and the persistence of the status quo. What more sane policy than to uncompromisingly advocate Arabs’ aspirations and resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without heed to domestic lobbies, thereby conserving American interests, stabilizing the region, and encouraging democracy? The Palestinian and Arab peoples will be grateful for such policy. Obama, any American president, need utter just one line, “America supports democracy, dignity, and freedom of the Arab peoples,” and American flags will fly all over the Middle East.
Actual US policy foundations in the Middle East, viz. unconditional support for Israel, preservation of the status quo, and guaranteeing the cheap flow of oil (Bacevich says empire, oil, Israel) didn’t begin with the “global war on terror” and have been untenable for decades. Middle Eastern people understand that this is wrong, unrealistic, misplaced. They wish to see mutual, independently derived cooperation, consistency and respect for officially voiced American values: democracy and human rights. They reject subordinating their own interests to those of a foreign power and being the object of interference and invasion. They aspire to control their natural resources for the good of themselves, politically organize and choose their governments as they wish, and be free of foreign domination. They want the killing of Muslims caused by direct and indirect violence (wars, sanctions), which may be upward of one million in the past thirty years alone, to stop.
If John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s argument that America’s strategic interests are access to oil and natural gas in the Persian Gulf, prevention of nuclear weapons in the region, and reduction, if not elimination, of anti-American terrorism, is reasonable, then a democratic Middle East is, in fact, the best guarantor of these interests. For no government in the region wishes to stop trade or selling oil, none, including and especially Egypt, wish to return to conflict and war with Israel, and virtually all Middle Easterners and Muslims reject nihilist fanaticism. Arguments to the contrary maintain the idea of Islamist enemies in the American mind and a wedge between the American and Middle Eastern peoples for the sake of Israel. An Egypt no longer cooperating in the suffocation and torment of Gaza, striking an independent course based on its interests and will of its people and leading the Arab League in coordinating diplomatic and political pressure on the US and Israel for a just peace is eminently reasonable.
The obstacles to intelligent management of these complex, though not intractable or incomprehensible challenges, are pretty much what they always were: Foreign control, generated by the urge of a great power to dominate and shape others, to discipline individuals, regimes and states that do not fall into line with the neo-liberal model that has marginalized millions. An unaccountable “West,” its civilized governments and politicians meting out punishment at will. Culturally based misperceptions and misreading of complex realities, combined, in the US, with the domestic pressures and manipulations of the Israel lobby. Oppression, misrule, and corruption by local autocrats. Atavistic fanatics bent on creating their own utopias. The continuation of this state of affairs crucially hinges on whether the US will change course. That may not happen until the Arab world changes. It is amazing how instantly possibilities present themselves when the people, en masse, demand their own interests and rules of the game.