Our Dance with Arab Dictators
When we allow ourselves to be pushed into thinking about a people and a region as a monolith, sans diversity and differences, we view them only in stark stereotypes. We allow racist notions to become respectable.
Thus “the Arab street,” a contemptuous phrase the media dare not use for public opinion elsewhere. There is no “Canadian street.” No “American street.” No “British street.” No “French street.” But Arab public opinion, emanating in the street — emotional and irrational — is to be dismissed.
Similarly, we are told that all Arabs/Muslims are hard-wired to mistreat women. Like blacks being prone to violence and Catholics to abusing boys.
And in the middle of this glorious Arab spring, we are instructed to keep our enthusiasm in check and ponder instead that democracy may not be part of the Arab DNA.
These crude formulations do serve a purpose. They keep the focus of Arab troubles exclusively on Arabs, as though we have had no part in the mess.
For decades, Arabs have been denied democracy mostly by client regimes of the United States and Europe that financed and trained the dictators’ security set-ups. The mandate of these dreaded outfits has been to keep “the street” quiet, lest it resonate with what we did not want to hear.
Of the 22 members of the Arab League (18 really, if you ignore Comoros, Mauritania, Djibouti and Somalia), eight are monarchies — Jordan, Morocco and the six members of the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council. They are all American/western allies. They are described by our politicians and pundits as “moderate.” But they are tyrannies, in varying degrees. Six of them use torture.
There are eight other autocratic states — Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and the Palestinian Authority. Six and a half (Mahmoud Abbas being only half the PA) have been western allies. Most maintain torture chambers, which the U.S. has rented for anti-terror interrogations.
All seven have had entrenched dictatorships, five of them western allies at some point or another (Hosni Mubarak, 30 years; Moammar Gadhafi, 42 years; Abdullah Saleh, 33 years; Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 23 years; Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 12 years). Saddam Hussein also belonged in that club until he invaded Kuwait in 1991.
Our friends are all corrupt. The monarchs treat the state treasury as their own and won’t divulge the dividing line between state and personal funds. Others have found ways to monetize power and amass fortunes (Mubarak $5 billion; Gadhafi $10 billion; Ben Ali $8 billion). We winked and nodded, as though the deal was that we’d enrich them for services rendered.
The West helped deny democracy to the Arabs in order to protect oil and ensure security for Israel.
When George W. Bush decided in 2003 to change that policy — “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” — he opted for war to bring democracy to Iraq. He adopted the same model, retroactively, in Afghanistan. And when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, Condoleezza Rice called it “the birth pangs of the new Middle East.”
The Arab masses are giving us an alternate model: a non-violent grassroots demand for pluralistic and transparent democracy. They are promoting it with nothing more than raw courage, only to run into the guns, bullets, tanks and tear gas supplied, in most cases, by the West.
These brave reformers are not unaware of our role in their plight. Yet they are not blaming us or Israel. It’s a sign either of their generosity of spirit or their more immediate concerns of surviving another day.
Their uprisings — each shaped by the particular circumstances of their nations and the depth of depravity of their respective rulers — have exposed the moral and even strategic bankruptcy of the western approach. Oil is available to us, yes, but at usurious rates. And Israel does not have long-term security.
A more democratic order would no more restrict the flow of oil than trade is hindered between democracies. Rather, the opposite dictum would apply: that democracy is good for business. Similarly, democracy promotes stability and peace.
Rather than being held hostage by their puppets, the U.S. and its allies must use their clout to back pro-democracy forces. The West clearly cannot military intervene everywhere. However, waging war in the name of humanitarian intervention in Libya but turning a blind eye to Bahrain and Yemen is too self-serving to ignore.
The Arab Awakening is as much about us as it is about them.
© 2011 Toronto Star