As the ‘Arab Spring’ continues to challenge dictators, demolish old structures and ponder roadmaps for a better future, the US remains committed to its failed policies, misconceptions and selfish interests.
Arabs may disagree on many things, but few disagree on the fact that there is now no turning back. The age of the dictator, the Mubaraks and Bin Alis, is fading. A new dawn with a whole new set of challenges is upon us. Debates in the region are now concerned with democracy, civil society and citizenship. The only Arab intellectuals who still speak of terrorism and nuclear weapons are those commissioned by Washington-based think tanks or a few desperate to appear on Fox News.
Put simply, Arab priorities are no longer American priorities, as they may have been when Hosni Mubarak was still President of Egypt. Leading a group of ‘Arab moderates’, Mubarak’s main responsibility was portraying US foreign policy as if it was at the core of Egypt’s national interest as well. Meanwhile, in Syria, Bashar al-Assad was caught in the realm of contradiction. While desperate to receive high marks on his performance in the so-called war on terror, he still sold himself as a guardian of Arab resistance.
When the US took on Afghanistan in late 2001, the term ‘War on Terror’ became a staple in Arab culture. Ordinary Arabs were forced to take stances on issues that mattered little to them, but which served as the backbone of US military and political strategy in the region. The Arab man and woman—both denied rights, dignity and even a semblance of hope—were mere subjects of opinion polls concerning Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other issues that hardly registered on their daily radar of suffering and humiliation.
The Arab dictator exploited America’s obsession with its security. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh had to choose between a hostile takeover by the US—to ‘defeat al-Qaeda’—or carrying out the dirty war himself. He opted for the latter, soon to discover the perks of such a role. When the Yemeni people took to the streets demanding freedom and democracy, Saleh sent a loyal army and republican guards units to kill al-Qaeda fighters (whose numbers suddenly exploded) and also to kill unarmed democracy protesters. The straightforward but shrewd act was the equivalent of an unspoken bargain with the United States: I will fight your bad guys, as long as I am allowed to destroy mine.
Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi exploited America’s priorities as well. His regime’s constant emphasis on the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the rank of the opposition received a fair amount of validation in western media. Qaddafi went for the jugular in his desperate attempts at wowing the west, even suggesting that his war against the rebels was no different to Israel’s war against Palestinian ‘extremists’.
The strange thing is that the language spoken by the US and that by Arab dictators is largely absent from the lexicon of oppressed, ordinary Arabs aspiring for their long-denied basic rights.
Arabs are not unified by the narratives of al-Qaeda or the US. They are united by other factors that often escape western commentators and officials. Aside from shared histories, religions, language and a collective sense of belonging, they also have in common their experiences of oppression, alienation, injustice and inequality. The third UN Arab Development Report, published in 2005, surmised that in a modern Arab state, “the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes.” Things didn’t fare much better for Arab states in 2009, when the fifth volume in the series stated: “While the state is expected to guarantee human security, it has been, in several Arab countries, a source of threat undermining both international charters and national constitutional provisions.”
A TIME magazine story published in May was entitled ‘How the Arab Spring Made Bin Laden an Afterthought’. It seemed to celebrate the collective, secular nature of Arab revolutions when it reminded readers that: “There were no banners hailing Osama bin Laden in Egypt’s Tahrir Square; no photos of his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at anti-government protests in Tunisia, Libya or even Yemen.” The truthful depiction, reproduced in hundreds of reports throughout western media, is still deceitful at best. The fact is, the al-Qaeda model never captured the imagination of mainstream Arab society. Arab revolutions didn’t challenge Arab society’s perception of al-Qaeda, for the latter had barely occupied even a tiny space of the collective Arab imagination. However, these revolutions are yet to truly challenge the official American perception of the Arabs.
An “Arab Attitudes, 2011” survey was published last July by Zogby International. It communicated unsurprising views of six Arab nations, including the fact that Barack Obama’s popularity among Arabs had sunk to a new low of 10 percent. When Obama delivered his famous Cairo University speech in 2009, many Arabs saw that US-Arab priorities were finally meeting at some points. But the fact that US policy didn’t go on to shift an iota in any favorable direction made Arabs realize that US policies were adamant. The US continued with its wars, its support of Israel, and its old alliance with the most corrupt Arab elites. Arabs discovered (or rediscovered) than not only were there no meeting points between their aspirations and US policy, the two were actually on a clash course.
It is normal for the US to conduct its policies in an oil-rich region like the Middle East based on a set of clear interests and objectives. But what has in fact been taking place is the complete hijacking of Arab aspirations and the national interests of most Arab countries to fit US priorities. With the help of Arab dictators, the US’s unclear, misguided policies brought untold harm to Arab nations. Now millions of ordinary Arabs, whose priorities and expectations were so completely discounted, are showing they are no longer willing to accept that reality.