January was a month of strategic evolution for the Mideast, with the Arab people doing much in a very short time to reverse the humiliation they have suffered at the hands of the West over the last 700 years. Only a very bitter and blind Islamophobe today could sneer, as Western racists and empire-builders have done since 9/11, at Arabs today. Throughout the month of January, Tunisians and Egyptians and Yemeni and Lebanese have stood tall, risked their lives, figured out on the fly how to organize and manage democratic action in the face of extraordinary pressures. Be it bloody dictators, terrorist police, Western blackmail, or illegal Israeli overflights and war threats, Arab people this month have taught the world a lesson in how to defend human rights against the abuse of power.
It does not matter whether Mubarak survives a few more days; he is permanently shamed and discredited. Even if he succeeds in passing his dictatorship on to a new dictator, the people of Egypt will still have sent a message. Even if the Egyptian army eventually cracks and starts slaughtering the people, no one will ever forget the young defenders of freedom sitting on the tanks smiling and waving.
Democratic January has changed the Mideast.
The Arab people gained the most. They have demonstrated power: dictators and empire-builders must now take their concerns into account. They have demonstrated sophistication: they can organize to defeat repressive police, they have the cool to welcome tanks with cheers and neatly divide the forces of oppression, they can self-organize neighborhood security systems and uncover police-terrorists masquerading as criminals. A violent militia born of the need to defend a defenseless population against invaders has learned to take power by the rules of parliamentary procedure and then share the power by supporting a professional politician of another faith.
Mideast moderates such as Ankara have gained by default, though Ankara’s performance was rather pathetic and unimaginative. Moderates searching for a new and less confrontational way of conducting business in the Mideast have so far missed a huge opportunity for weakening the zero-sum process that has traditionally guided regional affairs, though there is yet time to make progress on that score, thanks to the brilliant performance of the supposedly uneducated “Arab street.”
Iran has gained simply by not being the center of attention. The Mideast is today far less of a two-camp, “good vs. bad,” “us vs. them” region. It is hard today to draw any line that validly divides the region on the basis of a single criterion, certainly not one as simplistic as “good vs. bad.” The Mideast is more nuanced, more flexible, and that benefits those dissatisfied with the way it was, which happens to include Iran, along with many other groups.
Empire-builders and dictatorial clients have suffered a permanent defeat. This is not to say that either empires or dictators will disappear from the region but that their sins will henceforth be viewed more clearly and resisted more forcefully. One cannot help but be less easily intimidated now. The next time a police bully glares at someone walking down the street, the uniformed goon will know that misbehavior on his part might just possibly start a revolution; that outcome remains unlikely, of course, but the goon will have the thought in the back of his mind, and he will also know that the citizen with his groceries in his arms will have the same thought in his mind.
As for Obama, it remains unclear, and this is somewhat to his credit, whether he is an empire-builder or not, but he has managed to avoid major miscalculations, he has managed not to make a mess even worse, he has started no wars. Nevertheless, he clearly continues to play a very dangerous game of catch-up with the fast-moving Egyptian people. If empire-builders suffered a defeat in January, the American people probably have come out a bit ahead, though the American people would be better off if politicians did not keep obstructing the recognition of common interests with Arabs who want the same freedoms Americans so blithely take for granted. The U.S., its politicians continuing to cozy up to Mubarak security-state henchmen, did not exactly emerge as a champion of freedom, but it did not lead the forces of repression either and now probably looks better in the eyes of the world than it has for a decade. Old habits die hard, and there are plenty of Egyptian generals and security officials more than ready to return to business as usual and clamp down once again on their people if only Washington will once more give them the nod, but at the moment things could go either way, and Washington is grudgingly recognizing that the language of force is not the only language in which to speak with Muslims. That is not just good for Muslims; it is also good for those Americans who care about their own freedom.
As for religious fanatics willing to use violence against the innocent to achieve partisan goals (e.g., al Qua’ida, some Protestant fundamentalists anticipating the “end of days,” some Iranians anticipating the arrival of the Mahdi, Jewish extremists trying to recreate ancient empires), those enemies of freedom have suffered their worst defeat in years. Things could change – the Egyptian army could massacre protesters and the people could turn in desperation to Salafi fanatics, for example. Or empire-builders could interfere to re-impose dictatorship, as Tony Blair tried to do by ordering (!) the people of Egypt to avoid interfering with what he is pleased to see as “the peace process” via which Israel is repressing Palestinians. And one can think of other worst case scenarios. But January 2011 was a bad month for extremists, and that is good news for everyone else.
In fact, the logical next step, assuming the Egyptian people do in fact seize their freedom, is that they will invigorate the moribund “peace” process, which could be done simply by opening wide the gate of the Rafah border crossing and giving the people of the Gaza Ghetto access to the world.
* My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this essay.