Scoop Link: "The Arab World Is on Fire"
"The Arab World Is on Fire"
Egyptian protesters march the streets of Cairo during demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 28, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)
“The Arab world is on fire,” al-Jazeera reported on Jan. 27, while throughout the region, Western allies “are quickly losing their influence.”
The shock wave was set in motion by the dramatic uprising in Tunisia that drove out a Western-backed dictator, with reverberations especially in Egypt, where demonstrators overwhelmed a dictator’s brutal police.
Observers compared the events to the toppling of Russian domains in 1989, but there are important differences.
Crucially, no Mikhail Gorbachev exists among the great powers that support the Arab dictators. Rather, Washington and its allies keep to the well-established principle that democracy is acceptable only insofar as it conforms to strategic and economic objectives: fine in enemy territory (up to a point), but not in our backyard, please, unless it is properly tamed.
One 1989 comparison has some validity: Romania, where Washington maintained its support for Nicolae Ceausescu, the most vicious of the East European dictators, until the allegiance became untenable. Then Washington hailed his overthrow while the past was erased.
That is a standard pattern: Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, Suharto and many other useful gangsters. It may be under way in the case of Hosni Mubarak, along with routine efforts to try to ensure that a successor regime will not veer far from the approved path.
The current hope appears to be Mubarak loyalist Gen. Omar Suleiman, just named Egypt’s vice president. Suleiman, the longtime head of the intelligence services, is despised by the rebelling public almost as much as the dictator himself.
A common refrain among pundits is that fear of radical Islam requires (reluctant) opposition to democracy on pragmatic grounds. While not without some merit, the formulation is misleading. The general threat has always been independence. In the Arab world, the U.S. and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism.
A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological center of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan’s dictators and President Reagan’s favorite, who carried out a program of radical Islamization (with Saudi funding).
“The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control,” says Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian official and now director of Middle East research for the Carnegie Endowment. “With this line of thinking, entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground.”
Therefore the public can be dismissed. The doctrine traces far back and generalizes worldwide, to U.S. home territory as well. In the event of unrest, tactical shifts may be necessary, but always with an eye to reasserting control.
The vibrant democracy movement in Tunisia was directed against “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” ruled by a dictator whose family was hated for their venality. This was the assessment by U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec in a July 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks.
(Noam Chomsky’s most recent book, with
co-author Ilan Pappe, is “Gaza in Crisis.” Chomsky is
emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.)