Politicians have convinced U.S. citizens for 60 years that some of the world’s tyrants and dictators are “strong and dependable allies of the U.S.” To wit, the State Department’s official statements about Hosni Mubarak during the first few days of the recent Egyptian uprising.
The emergence of two superpowers soon after World War II set the stage for a politically and ideologically polarized world.
Communism became our arch enemy, and anti-communist dictators, regardless of their tyrannical rule, became our allies “in the fight to keep communism from spreading around the world.”
For example, Muhammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s duly elected prime minister, was ousted from office in 1953 in a CIA-orchestrated coup d’etat because of Mosaddegh’s perceived Communist sympathies.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union helped spawn freedom movements, but the Arab world and Israel moved in the opposite direction. The so-called peace treaty between Egypt and Israel paved the way for Israel’s 1982 disastrous invasion of Lebanon.
And after Egypt, the largest military threat to Israel, was neutralized, successive Israeli governments diverted defense expenditures to a massive settlement building program in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
To accomplish these building goals, Palestinians had to be brutally suppressed. Israel, “our strongest ally in the region,” is indeed the only democracy in the Near East, yet its democratic ideals extend only to its Jewish citizens.
Israeli Arabs are treated as second-class citizens; Palestinians in the occupied territories live under the indignity of military occupation.
Enter the Iran-Iraq War of 1979, which pitted Iraq’s (Sunni) Saddam Hussein against Iran’s (Shia) Ayatollah Khomeini. U.S. support for Iraq’s brutal dictator came in many forms.
As long as Hussein exchanged his petro dollars for American goods in the fight against Iran, his brutal rule was condoned.
Later, as part of the propaganda to oust Hussein from Kuwait with the help of several regional “strong allies” (many of whom continue to be brutal dictators), the charge that “he used chemicals to kill his own people” became a rallying slogan to support the war.
Yes, Hussein gassed some 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, but why was there no prior condemnation? Is it because economic concerns trumped moral indignation?
Sept. 11 changed the landscape. President George W. Bush launched the Second Gulf War in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds of the Arab world” and “bring democracy” to a region whose population is governed by dictators.
Planting democracy in Iraq came at a high cost, especially to the Iraqis who counted more than 100,000 dead, 4 million refugees and an infrastructure pulverized back to the Stone Age.
Since Sept. 11, the list du jour of “strong allies” has grown exponentially: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, to name a few.
They provide military bases, intelligence support, rendition of suspected terrorists and, worst of all – to circumvent U.S. laws – they torture suspects on our behalf.
Nobel laureate Muhammad El Baradei summed up the aspirations of the masses in Egypt: “If there is no democracy, there is no life.”
Albeit slowly, democracy will come to the Arab world if:
· President Obama becomes more proactive and vocal in holding the rulers of the Arab world to account for their tyrannical rule and exerts pressure on Israel to realize that a two-state solution is in its best interest;
· Arab rulers democratize their regimes and join the 21st century;
· Arab masses keep the religious fanatics at bay; and
· Israel, a lynchpin in any democratic future for the region, realizes it cannot continue to rule over 3.5 million Palestinians yearning for dignity and freedom.
I had the privilege in 1990 of interviewing Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Cairo in his Al Ahram (The Pyramids) office, the Arab world’s largest newspaper.
He stated: “Egypt had a glorious past. For 3,500 years we made outstanding contributions to civilization, yet during the last 1,500 years we’ve stood on the sidelines, observing, instead of helping make history.”
While Europe was in deep slumber, the Arabs made history with their great accomplishments in every field of learning, and their contributions helped spawn Europe’s Renaissance.
It is time for the Umma Al Arabiya (the Arab nation) to stop living on the glorious laurels of the past and join a 21st-century world that values individual freedom and human rights for all.
If the Arab world adheres to Gandhi-style civil disobedience, then this historic tsunami, which began in Tunisia will, Insha’Allah (God willing), depose the tyrants of the Arab world.
Tyrants hang on to power for as long as possible. Historic events afford leaders rare opportunities, and great leaders know how to seize these opportunities. The leaders of the Arab world and Israel cannot afford to miss this opportunity.
Scribbled in English on a poster carried by a young Egyptian demonstrator were four words that sum up the aspirations of millions of Arabs: “Yes, we can too.”
Raouf J. Halaby, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is of Christian Palestinian heritage. He is a professor of English and art at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. A longer version of this column first appeared in Counterpunch.