A Blog on Middle East Transformation
President Obama’s May 19 speech about change in the Middle East raises some important and enduring conundrums about politics and identity that apply to Asia as well as the Middle East. The U.S. wants to be on the right side of history, and has newly embraced the demand for reform and democracy as a higher-order determinant of U.S. policy priorities than the earlier emphasis on stability.
The rising sectarianism, violence, and the conspicuous presence of many religious groups bent on Islamizing the society in Egypt in the past three months since the forced removal of President Mubarak raised the prospect of the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. To assess whether or not that prospect will transpire, five factors need to be understood.
The closing sentence of Eliza Griswold’s “Talk of the Town” vignette in the May 16 edition of the New Yorker poignantly connects Abbottabad to the surge of protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East: “I’m afraid of our economy,” an Abbottabad realtor insists, “not of Osama bin Laden.” This simple, yet powerful, statement transcends ideological warfare—be it against terrorism or for democracy—and reminds us that dire economic conditions are the most basic driving force behind the protests.
What Egyptians want, above all, is an Egyptian democracy. For many of them, this means a democracy that doesn’t view religion as either a backward relic to be surmounted and militantly policed (again, France) or an apolitical feel-good faith to be celebrated as long as it behaves (Great Britain).
Friday’s announcement of George Mitchell’s resignation as the U.S. mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be yet another sign of the disarray and failure in President Obama’s handling of the Middle East. Recently, two articles provided a troubling inside look at the ineptitude that makes Mitchell’s departure unsurprising. A New Yorker piece on the Arab Spring by Ryan Lizza describes Obama’s navigation between realists and idealists, and tags him (per the article’s title) as “The Consequentialist.” Perhaps “The Cluelessist” is more like it.
There was a theatrical air about Osama bin Laden. He cultivated mystique. For example, he relished inviting selected international journalists–some known for their own theatricality–to meet him in dangerous or shadowy circumstances that facilitated dramatic storytelling. I had a minor part in bringing Bin Laden to the world stage in 1996 when I interviewed him in Khartoum for a TIME magazine story headlined “The Paladin of Jihad.” Bin Laden’s enemies added to the hype. George W. Bush, the gun-slinging president from Texas, responded to September 11 with a line straight out of Hollywood: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.'”
Three months after the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, President Obama’s approach to the Middle East is hopelessly adrift. He is hesitant to truly embrace the Arab freedom movements, failing to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and lacking effective diplomacy to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Two years after his ballyhooed Cairo University reach-out to the Arab and Muslim worlds, it’s clear now that he actually doesn’t get it.
McCain: Support anti-Gadhafi Libyan rebels, de-legitimize Syria’s Assad.
Opened just two months after the start of protests, Tahrir! embodies the texture as well as the spirit of a revolution that is still ongoing.
History does not repeat itself but it teaches lessons. As Egypt moves from autocracy, it can learn from the way in which Spain made its own transición in the 1970s from the dictatorship of General Franco to the liberal democracy of his appointed successor, King Juan Carlos.
A promising African country is decimated by wars, violence, and lack of individual liberties. President Omar Al-Bashir, who elected himself multiple times through fraudulent and farcical elections, has ruled the country with an iron fist and explosive violence for more than two decades. But the county is revolting, from its peripheries.
Arabs finally know “Berlin time.” Their wall of fear is collapsing. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are fragile. Libya can tip into chaos. But, one might ask, who cares? The long-awaited time of freedom has come. The Arab world is entering a new phase of the end of the post-colonial period, a crucial one in which the regimes can no longer control their populations with an iron fist. Algeria cannot remain impervious to the huge expectations.
Yazan is one of legions of Syrians who have internalized the paranoia that has been the hallmark of life under the Baath Party regime. The vast network of Syria’s security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, has turned Syria into a kingdom of silence.
Hezbollah is keeping a close eye on the unprecedented uprising in neighboring Syria, wary that the collapse of the Al-Assad regime could fundamentally reshape the strategic balance of the Middle East and present stark challenges to the Lebanese group and its Iranian patron. For now, Hezbollah officials and cadres are expressing a quiet confidence that President Bashar Al-Assad will prevail.
While Egypt’s popular uprising has given the Brotherhood the chance to flex its political muscles, it is also forcing the organization to face up to its own democracy deficit. While it prefers to walk the line between being an advocate for reform and a guardian of the political status quo (under which it is one of the only forces prepared to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections), the Brotherhood is facing internal and external pressure to conform to Egypt’s emerging democratic standards.
When President Obama went on national television Monday night to defend launching a military assault on Libya, didn’t his address have a familiar ring? Muammar Gadhafi is a “tyrant,” Obama said, who “murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world, including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”
If we aspire to achieve responsive governance in Egypt to reform our institutions, there are many channels to enable the youth so they can play a role: from within the government bureaucracy, from within the private sector and non-government sector, through organized political and advocacy activities, and through conventional and non-conventional media and communication tools.
The Internet network is inherently not governed. Yet, each player has a valuable role. January 27 teaches us that a move away from centralization, particularly in the presence of autocratic governments, is crucial.
Egyptian author Galal Amin’s new book is certainly timely. “Egypt in the Era of Hosni Mubarak, 1981-2011” chronicles the corruption and misrule that led to Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Amin, a professor at the American University in Cairo, spoke to the Cairo Review after his book launch.