This commentary was published in The New York Times on 31/01/2011
LONDON — One way to measure the immense distance traveled by Arabs over the past month is to note the one big subject they are not talking about: Israel.
For too long, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the great diversion, exploited by feckless Arab autocrats to distract impoverished populations. None of these Arab leaders ever bothered to visit the West Bank. That did not stop them embracing the justice of the Palestinian cause even as they trampled on justice at home.
Now, Arabs are thinking about their own injustices. With great courage, they are saying “Enough!”
The big shift is in the captive Arab mind. It is an immense journey from a culture of victimhood to one of self-empowerment, from a culture of conspiracy to one of construction. It is a long road from rage to responsibility, from humiliation to action.
The Muslim suicide bomber aims fury at a perceived outside enemy. Self-immolation, the spark to this great pan-Arab uprising, betrays similar desperation, but directed inward. The outer scapegoat is replaced as the target by the inner Arab culprit.
Change won’t come overnight, and won’t be without pain, but Arabs have embarked on it — and the United States must support them without equivocation. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, is finished: It is only a matter of time. No wonder the Obama administration is calling for an “orderly transition.”
Sure, there is risk. There always is in change. But nothing in the Arab genome says democracy, liberty and plain decency are unattainable.
Remember, Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attack, came from Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. The vast majority of Atta’s henchmen came from another U.S.-backed Arab autocracy, Saudi Arabia. They did not come from Iran. They did not come from Lebanon — or Gaza.
President George W. Bush was right in 2003: “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.” And Condoleezza Rice was right to note that the U.S. promotion of “stability” — read autocracy — had allowed “a very malignant, meaning cancerous, form of extremism to grow up underneath.”
Bush and Rice were also, however, the authors of the Iraq invasion. This destroyed their credibility on Arab liberation. Their Middle East democracy agenda went nowhere. But, self-generated, it remains the right goal.
A 2008 study by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center found that 60 percent of Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters were of Saudi or Libyan origin: the handiwork of those alibi-seeking Arab despots again.
I spoke of risk. Egypt is not Tunisia, it’s the epicenter of the Arab world, self-styled “mother of the world,” a supporter of U.S. interests, a big nation that has made a cold peace with Israel. The direction it now takes will be pivotal to the region.
The arguments of those who say, “Better the devil you know” are already clear. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel-prize-winning Egyptian opposition leader, has immense stature but no organization. The Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist Israel haters, will fill any void. Look at what Arab democracy brings: Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and chaos in Iraq! You want that in Egyptian guise?
These arguments are facile, as Tunisia, with its very un-Islamic revolution, has just demonstrated, and Turkish democracy shows, and Egyptian restraint suggests. They only perpetuate Middle Eastern dysfunction. They ignore America’s sway over Egypt’s Army as a critical moderating force — and ElBaradei’s rapid emergence as unifier.
Yes, Iraqi democracy is messy, but will prove healthier than Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. A Hezbollah-backed prime minister just came to power in Lebanon, but through a constitutional process — and life goes on. The Palestinian stab at democracy has proved divisive but also produced in the West Bank precisely the move from a culture of victimhood and paralysis that other Arabs are now following.
Indeed, with its fast-growing economy and institution-building the West Bank is an example to the dawning Arab world — and would be more so if Israel helped rather than blocked and hindered.
Nothing good can get built on the false foundation of Arab absolutism with its decades of waste: That’s the irrefutable argument for change.
Images of Cairo 2011 plunge me back to Tehran 2009, when another repressive Muslim — but not Arab — nation stood on a razor’s edge. Henry Precht, an author and former U.S. diplomat, has pointed out some differences: 40 percent of Egyptians make less than $2 a day while such poverty is less widespread in Iran; Iranian women are far more present in universities; literacy is higher in Iran, the fertility rate lower. As Precht writes, “Iranian politics, though badly flawed, offers more elements of democracy than Egypt’s.”
These are perhaps some indices of why the Islamic Republic proved more resilient than Mubarak’s Egypt seems today. Still, Iran’s paranoid rulers will shudder at Egyptian people power.
A representative Egyptian government — the one whose birth pangs I believe we are witnessing — will talk about Israel one day and may be less pliant to America’s will. But it would carry a vital message for Arabs and Jews: Victimhood is self-defeating and paralyzing — and can be overcome.