You think you know what Arab rage looks like,” claimed an article in Time magazine last week. “Wild-eyed young men shouting bellicose verses from the Qur’an as they hurl themselves against authority, armed with anything from rocks to bomb vests.”
But after some time witnessing Egypt’s uprising the author had a revelation. Arabs had humanity and a range of attributes to go with it: humour, subtlety, sophistication, conviviality and, yes, anger – the full complement. “So who were these impostors gathered in Tahrir Square?” he asked, seeing his prejudice confronted by reality. “They were smiling and laughing, waving witty banners.” Though he didn’t mention them, many women were present too. And most of the weaponry on display, from teargas to tanks, was either made in, sponsored or subsidised by America.
The events of the last month in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have challenged the way the west thinks of the Arab world (and how the Arab world thinks of itself). What remains to be seen is the extent to which these ongoing events confront the way in which western powers view themselves and their relationship to the Middle East.
Over the last decade in particular, the Arab world has increasingly been depicted in the west as a region in desperate need of being tamed so that it can be civilised. It has been portrayed as an area rooted in religious fervour, where freedom was a foreign concept and democracy a hostile imposition. Violence and terrorism was what they celebrated, and all they would ever understand. Liberty, our leaders insisted, would have to be forced on them through the barrel of a gun for they were not like us. The effect was to infantilise the Arab world in order to justify our active, or at least complicit, role in its brutalisation.
While this view has been intensified by the 9/11 terror attacks, the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, it was not created by them. “There are westerners and there are Orientals,” explained the late Edward Said, as he laid out the western establishment’s prevailing attitude to the region at the turn of the last century, in his landmark work . “The former dominate, the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another western power.”
So the sight of peaceful, pluralist, secular Arabs mobilising for freedom and democracy in ever greater numbers against a western-backed dictator forces a reckoning with the “clash of civilisations” narrative that has sought to overwhelm the past decade. It turns out there is a means of supporting democracy in this part of the world that does not involve invading, occupying, bombing, torturing and humiliating. Who knew?
Evidence of this dislocation between expectation and reality went way beyond the pages of Time magazine. Where the west predicted chaos in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak‘s departure, protesters came to sweep up the rubbish in Tahrir Square. When women in headscarves (those supposedly submissive victims whom the French government pledges to rescue from themselves) were embroiled in physical confrontations with the Tunisian state, France sided with the state.
In the crude Manichean struggle between political Islam and democracy invented by a wrongheaded strand of western liberalism, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that marched for freedom while the self-appointed defenders of the Enlightenment prevaricated for tyranny.
Last week Tony Blair said Mubarak was “immensely courageous and a force for good“. On Sunday he said Mubarak’s departure could be a “pivotal moment for democracy in the Middle East“. The man charged by the major world powers with bringing peace to the region can’t make up his mind whether he is for despotism or democracy from one week to the next.
Such are just some of the contradictions, hypocrisies, tensions and inconsistencies of the west’s policies towards the region over the last month.
Where the west’s self-image is concerned the principal casualty has been the insistence that it is an honest broker seeking to expand democracy, peace and freedom in the region and anxious to avoid meddling in any nation’s internal affairs. This was never true. “We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians,” the former British prime minister Arthur Balfour told the House of Commons in 1910. “Though we are there for their sake, we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.” But in the postcolonial era it was repeated often enough on both sides of the Atlantic that western leaders started to believe it themselves.
So the truth is that the west was already involved. It is simply not credible to arm a dictator for 30 years and then claim neutrality when opposition mounts against him.
The west supports democracy when democracy supports the west. But Egypt further proves that, for the west, freedom is a question of strategy not principle. That’s why, while most of the world looked on at the throngs in Cairo with awe and admiration, western leaders eyed them with fear and suspicion. They know that if the Arab world gets to choose its own leaders, those leaders would be less supportive of everything from rendition and Iran to Iraq and the blockade of Gaza. The west’s foreign policy in the region has not simply tolerated a lack of democracy, it has been actively dependent on dictatorship.
Moreover, it became apparent that while the west has been deeply complicit in what has happened in the region, it was not even remotely in control of what would happen next. Indeed, it was barely relevant. The protesters saw the US neither as the primary problem nor the solution. Washington’s preferred option of replacing Mubarak with Omar Suleiman in return for the promise of democracy at some unspecified future date revealed how little it understood what was happening in Egypt. This would have been the equivalent of a huge US social movement ousting Bush only to find him replaced by Dick Cheney.
But nor apparently did the US fully understand the tenacity of the monster it had created. Mubarak’s final national address was not just a rebuff to the demonstrators but also to the White House, which apparently had no idea what he was going to say until he’d said it. The problem wasn’t that Washington had no horse in the race, but that its horse was lame – and when it bolted, it dragged the US into a ditch.
While the west has been wrongfooted, its ability to influence events has not been extinguished. Mubarak’s departure was a massive achievement. However, revolution demands not only the upending of the old order but the establishment of a new one. Removing a man is one thing; transforming a system is quite another.
“Kings were put to death long before 21 January 1793,” wrote Albert Camus, referring to Louis XVI’s execution after the French revolution. “But regicides of earlier times and their followers were interested in attacking the person, not the principle of the king. They wanted another king, and that was all. It never occurred to them that the throne could remain empty for ever.”
The west’s credibility in the region has been terminally damaged. But while it lacks influence, it still has power. The king has fled. But the kingmakers still wait in the wings.