In sitting rooms across Libya, as Al Jazeera broadcasts the latest on regional and global politics, many are keenly watching developments in the US Presidential election campaign. At the same time, in the Arab street and neighbourhoods, many hold onto a hope that this time around, that now, this year, the US elections will produce a different outcome. The Arab Street wants a different kind of upheaval, for the United States to break with the past and to steer its foreign policy in a new direction, away from maintaining the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa.
Libyan citizens, like their neighbours, care deeply about what happens in the United States, because the United States still holds the power and influence to affect peace and the pace of democratic transitions in the region, and crucially, to put pressure on existing Arab autocracies and repressive regimes, including the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel. More than ever, following the political awakenings sweeping their countries, the Arab Street wants to see an Israel that plays by international rules. Specifically, they want Israel to: respect UN Security Council resolutions, hand back illegally occupied land to Palestinians, and to lift inhumane economic sanctions on Palestinians who are living on or below the breadline in Gaza.
The basic ingredients that make up these ambitious aspirations of a youthful Arab Spring are rooted in a historical and traumatic legacy of regional upheavals and oppression within their own national borders. As an elder Libyan recently told me (and I paraphrase), “the people on the [Arab] street have nothing against America and Americans, but against successive US administrations' policies, policies that are based on the firm idea that the politics of the MENA are going nowhere”. With the election of a new President, these policies must change. Arab citizens feel that the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution is still on the table, and that the Palestinian people need to be treated with dignity and humanity. They also recognise however, that the US has a tough time at home in justifying putting any amount of pressure on Israel.
Meanwhile, the Arab Street is changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. With a fledgling democratic government, Libyans really do feel they are living in a time of (as Michael Sandel has termed it) both moral and civic renewal. Based on the earlier behaviour of the Obama administration, who supported Mubarak’s regime in 2011, this hope may be a naïve one, but it remains a hope nevertheless. As Obama wrote in the Libya letter of April 2011 (with Cameron and Sarkozy), just as they were committed to enabling Libyans to “choose their own future”, so too should the US remain committed to securing and protecting the basic human rights of oppressed people, as well as to creating the conditions for the self-determination of Palestinian people.
As Avi Shlaim observed earlier this year, the Arab Spring ‘presents Israel with a historic opportunity: to become part of the region in which it is located and to join with pro-democracy forces in forging a new Middle East.’ An unchanging stance by the US towards repressive regimes such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Israel will only create deep frustration and resentment in the Arab street. In particular, a continued policy bias in favour of Israel will only backfire in the long-term for everyone. The Arab Street asks for the next President of the United States to instead embrace a region and a people with the same hopes and aspirations as the next Israeli or American citizen.
This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.