From Jefferson to Jihad – Listen Carefully to the Arab Streets

Posted on March 15, 2011


Alain Gresh  has authored a long and insightful article critical to the understanding of what is playing out in the Arab world today beginning with Egypt. He moves from the general thesis:

No dictatorship lasts forever, even when it rules the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Internal changes influence foreign policy, but the extent of evolution depends on the context…[.]

That said, he draws some important parallels between the Egyptian and Indonesian revolutions.

A large Muslim country is overwhelmed by strikes and demonstrations. This pillar of US regional policy is damaged by authoritarian rule and its resources are looted by the president’s family; there is social and economic crisis; Washington abandons an old ally and the US Secretary of State calls on a dictator to stand down and allow for democratic transition.

This may sound like Egypt in 2011. In fact, it was Indonesia in May 1998, and the call for President Suharto to stand down came from Madeleine Albright, not Hillary Clinton. He had seized power in 1965 with the help of the CIA in a coup in which half a million communists, or suspected communists, were killed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Indonesia was no longer needed as a bulwark against communism; the US decided it would rather support democratic movements, and direct them to suit its interests. President Bill Clinton wanted to project a more open image of the US. It turned out to be a wise choice, and Indonesia has maintained close relations with the US, even though, as an active member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, it has taken an independent stance on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Gresh provides a caveat:”Egypt is not Indonesia, and the Middle East is not Southeast Asia.”

For those who think the endgame for Egypt should be the Turkish form of government, he reminds us  that Egypt is not as economically strong as Turkey and is dependent on the US for military aid and on Europe for other needs.  It does not mean a return to the era pre-Mubarak.  Even under Mubarak, Egypt expressed their sympathy with the Palestinian situation and did not cotton to the US’s inability to control the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, or the fact that Israel “invaded Lebanon (twice), declared Jerusalem its capital, and bombed Iraq and Syria.”

The new geopolitical context will force the US administration to make crucial choices, but does it have the will, and ability, to do so?

Here is Gersh’s view of the beginning of the way back for the US and Europe to having good relations in the Middle East.  It is a big question that Obama and the EU states will have to answer and soon:

Will it  [the US] now have the courage to listen to the Arab street, which is not in fact a crowd of bearded fundamentalists and women in niqabs?

Gresh and our own General Petraeus have said that our policies must change. Here are the bottom line views of both:

  1. In March 2010, General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, said: “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world” .
  2. [And from Gresh] The new geopolitical context will force the US administration to make crucial choices, but does it have the will, and ability, to do so? These questions also apply to the EU, which has been compromised by its staunch support for Ben Ali and Mubarak. The EU was incapable of maintaining distance from dictators, has made many agreements with an Israeli government that is hostile to peace, and has promoted neoliberal economic policies that have worsened poverty and facilitated massive corruption south of the Mediterranean…[.]

Perhaps, as the Lebanese writer Georges Corm suggests, civil society in the North should follow the Arab example and “raise the level of protest against the dreadful neoliberal oligarchy that impoverishes European economies, creates too few jobs and every year forces more Europeans of all nationalities into insecurity. This backwards evolution benefits a narrow layer of managers whose annual pay eats up more and more of the nations’ wealth”

The second point above could have been written by as US Conservative.

For those of all stripes concerned with a tidal movement toward Conservative Islam, one can find hope in Gresh’s closing observation.

“Neither East nor West” chanted Iranian protesters in 1979, opposing both the US and the Soviet Union. “Neither with the West nor against it” could be the slogan now across the Arab world, expressing a desire for independence and sovereignty in a multi-polar world. They will judge the West by its ability to defend the principles of justice and international law everywhere, particularly in Palestine. But they will no longer allow their governments to use the struggle against the West to justify tyranny.

And this writer adds – back to the constitution, Obama.  It matters to the world if it does not matter to you.  It has been quoted in phrases all over the Middle East during these revolutions.  Just last week from the street Jefferson’s words: “All men are created equal[.]”  There is more of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on the lips of the Arab street people than in the streets of the US.

You may read the article in its entirety in the English edition of Le Monde. Also look to the sidebar on the page for links to other important related articles.