I was in the United States when an Egyptian national popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak to quit his presidency, and I was in the United States again when Mohammed Morsi was elected as the new Egyptian president. Now, as then, Americans remain unsure about how to react to the popular revolutions that have felled their long-time autocratic Arab allies, who in most cases were replaced by more legitimate, Islamist-led governments.
At the same time though, Americans—who helped define the modern revolutionary and democratic era in the twentieth century—instinctively tend to support national populist revolutions that create government systems based on the consent of the governed and democratic electoral pluralism. When it is Arabs who carry out these revolutionary and democratic endeavors, however, American society reacts with obvious hesitancy alongside the flashes of enthusiasm. It is important for Americans and Arabs alike to understand this phenomenon, because it reflects much deeper perceptions, sentiments, and biases that will continue to haunt relations between Arabs and Americans and prevent them from ever fully embracing one another—or even from developing normal relations.
My own sense is that two main underlying problems are to blame: the intrusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington’s deep pro-Israel bias into American-Arab relations, and the lingering consequences of several unpleasant encounters between the United States and various Arab, Iranian, or South Asian parties that defined themselves in Islamist terms (Iran, Hizbollah, Al-Qaeda, and others).
This was evident when I read through some ‘quality’ American press coverage of the Mohammed Morsi election victory (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle). One story in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage on June 25, 2012, was a textbook case of the bias and confusion that regularly recur in American reactions to the current transformational events in the Arab world. And one sentence in particular captured this phenomenon succinctly: a front page story on the Morsi victory noted that “Many secular Egyptians watched uneasily, wondering what Islamist rule will mean for a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate, and pro-American governance.”
Many things are wrong with this sentence and the perceptions that underpin it.
What is a “secular Egyptian”? These phrases are used too easily to have much meaning, because they do not capture the reality that most Egyptians (according to recent polls) are very religious and want their public life and governance to reflect the best of their religious values. But they do not want religious figures to run the government. The Arab Middle East is defined by populations who respect religious values but also want secular governments run by competent managers, who are themselves simultaneously secular and religious.
What in the world is “Islamist rule”? This is another term that American and other media throw around without either defining it clearly or validating it within the political realities of the countries they are talking about. Morsi and his colleagues have explained how they will run the presidency as an institution that reflects all Egyptians. They do not speak of ‘Islamic rule,’ and nor do Egyptians generally.
Egypt’s many decades as “a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate, and pro-American governance,” more or less explain why the anti-Mubarak revolution took place. The American media and political culture regularly use such facile and even hollow phrases to describe Egypt and other ‘moderate’ Arab countries that are soft on Israel and carry out American directives and preferences in the region, especially in the security and economic arenas. Moderate? Egypt has been deeply immoderate and extremist in running a security state that so badly demeaned and disfigured its own people for over half a century that they finally rose up in revolt.
The same article also quotes American, Israeli, and Arab officials as being concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood victory could be “a complication to efforts at Arab-Israeli peace talks.” If any Wall Street Journal correspondents or editors believe there are serious Arab-Israeli peace efforts underway, they are professionally obligated either to document and verify that fact (which they cannot do because there are no such serious efforts) or come clean and stop living in the world of childish, hallucinatory, and propagandistic illusions that have come to define Middle East policy in Washington and Israel.
These few examples are from just one news story, plucked from a vast American media and political universe. This widespread tendency in the United States to view the Arab world through such a distorted lens makes doubt, hesitancy, mistrust, and skepticism the most common reactions to our political transformations.
The Arab world is changing in dramatic ways. And it is time that Americans—and others who deal with the Arabs—also change commensurately, if accuracy and honesty are in fact part of their own world.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.