Who could have imagined that a stray incident of self-immolation in a Tunisian city, by an angry, unemployed youth would be the spark that became a prairie fire which threatens to burn down the citadels of the region’s many autocrats?
Having served in the region, I cannot but admit that I am both humbled and excited at the scale and speed of the convulsion that has overtaken the region, prompting me to recall Coleridge’s immortal lines about the French Revolution: “Bliss was it to be alive”!
True, there is already an attempt to disparage the valour and resolve of the people taking part in the protests. This has been done by hinting at a ‘hidden’ American hand in so-called ‘democracy-related seminars’ that organisations such as the Alliance for Youth Movements have been holding for years. This would be grave disservice to the thousands of ordinary people who have risked all, even their lives, to gain their freedom from exploitation and oppression.
Those who deny credit where it is due are not only disparaging the leaderless masses, but are giving legitimacy to racist views long propagated by Zionists and neocons that the Arabs were not capable of standing up for their rights, either because of an inherent flaw in their genes, or because their faith did not permit for dissent. It also arises from a failure to appreciate the profound anger and outrage simmering in these societies for decades. After all, for nearly 1,000 years, the Arabs have been dominated by foreign powers, and even when they finally became independent states, it represented merely a shift from Anglo-French colonial rule to American hegemony, which nurtured brutal regimes that entered into Faustian bargains with the West — you can have all our oil as long as you allow us to brutalise our people!
The architects of the uprisings are neither Islamists nor secularists, but as Olivier Roy, the French political scientist, calls them, are the “post-Islamist generation”. This is what worries Israel, which explains its desperate pleas to the US and Europe not to ‘abandon’ Mubarak and the other incompetent, corrupt and cruel despots, who assiduously exploited the West’s obsession with ‘Islamism’. Much to the consternation of both Israel and the West, the popular revolts have also debunked the myth that the only alternative to autocrats was al Qaeda, as well as the propaganda about the incompatibility between Islam and democracy.
These uprisings do not signify the triumph of western values, because the educated, smart and tech-savvy youth, even when recognising that not all things western are evil, concedes that neither is extremist ‘Islamism’ a panacea for all its failures. They are overwhelmingly moderate and rational, willing to accept those elements of western polity and society which are compatible with their own core beliefs, but their orientation is likely to be ‘nationalist’. Their aim is to gain individual liberties, tempered with collective responsibility, while focusing on economic development and constitutional reforms. The changes will be slow and painful, interrupted by hiccups and missteps, but will be pursued with assurance and self-confidence.
The Obama administration’s reaction has so far been the right mix of restrained encouragement of the protestors, coupled with diplomatic pressure on the autocrats to read the writing on the wall. Sadly, however, it appears as if habits acquired over decades cannot be shed so easily. The urge to use bluster and threats is once again emerging in Washington and also in European capitals. This would not only be counterproductive, but seriously compromise those, especially in Libya, who want to oust their strongman by their own efforts. Obama would do well to reject the advice of such self-serving European allies who are associated with much of what ails the region. Any talk of ‘humanitarian intervention’ sounds and smells of the West’s insatiable appetite for oil! Let this new dawn not become a false hope.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2011.
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