Sunday, March 6, 2011

A new Arab image -- no matter what

Al Jazeera screen grab from

"Tunisia’s revolution now looks pretty much complete," Max Rodenbeck writes optimistically in the current New York Review of Books. Remnants of the old regime have been forced out of the government and "exiles have returned, censorship has been abandoned, and political prisoners have been amnestied. Elections are scheduled for August." In Egypt with its complex institutions we can see that progress is slow, and perhaps should be even slower to allow a new leadership to emerge in elections. Perhaps this is the "orderly transition" Washington called for. The Egyptian people have shown they're still willing to take to the streets whenever necessary. More and more remnants of the old regime are being pushed out there too.  And demonstrations continue in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, even Oman now.

If you look at the amazing wave of Arab revolts from the angle of Libya however, things don't look so positive. In fact they look horrible. Qaddafi's responses to the popular revolution against his dictatorship -- his pretense that it did not exist, his menacing threats, his house-by-house terrorizing of the population, his vicious military attacks by air and by land against rebel areas -- still represent the worst that could happen to a people in revolt, short of genocide. If Qaddafi loyalists remain numerous and fighting continues to be fierce (though limited by poor equipment on both sides), then can you call this"civil war," as some already want to? The revolutionaries utterly reject this. They say they can't be called "rebels" because they are in the majority. They say this is not civil war but a revolution, which a powerful and rich dictator is ruthlessly attempting to crush. They say the "loyalists" are not really an opposing faction. They are people who hate the regime too but are controlled by terror, or foreign mercenaries with no way out.

The situation in Libya is tragic, a humanitarian disaster. It's still positive for the opposition, in that it has removed any legitimacy Qaddafi ever may have had. But it's tricky for the US, which seems to be moving away from its interventionist policies. Defense Secretary Gates has built up the American military to new levels and attempted to modernize it. But he has just shocked some people by warning against any future discretionary wars: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” he told West Point cadets a few days ago. Gates specifically rules out future Iraqs or Afghanistans. The US can set up a "no-fly zone" in Libya, Gates acknowledges but he warns: “Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." That means the US bombs another Arab country, not a good idea. Especially when it's a particularly oil-rich one.

Obama presents an image of dithering. He waits to see which way the wind blows. He only supports an Arab revolution once it's clearly winning or the dictator becomes a war criminal. But his restraint has a plus side. However much administration statements reveal a lingering assumption that the US is the world's savior and protector, the US has not stuck its nose in Arab business too obviously this time.

But this means that Libya is burning and many are dying and the rest of the world isn't doing much to reverse that. Egypt and Tunisia have had relatively peaceful revolts. Their regimes fell and they are transitioning into democracies. Libya is descending into chaos and its dictator rages on.

This provides fuel to the pessimists and the right wing in America and Israel who say the Arab revolutionary movements are a disaster that will destabilize the region and make Iran, which Israel hawks would like to bomb out of existence, the dominant power in the region. But this is still a time for optimism. NY Times op-ed piece by Karim Sadjadpour counters that. With its similar demographics and new vibrancy and freedom, he says, Egypt will balance Iran's power as never before. The Arab revolts will provide models of all the qualities that Iran, with its stagnation and oppression, conspicuously lacks. Iran won't be anybody's role model. It will be less of a threat, not more.

Again the seemingly timid Obama has taken the right stand by telling Israel they shouldn't be afraid of changes in the Middle East. Still asserting that protecting Israel was "sacrosanct," Obama recently reassured a Jewish group that he's "actually confident that ten years from now we’re going to be able to look back potentially and say this was the dawning of an entirely new and better era.” Potentially. Still the weasel word, but telling Jews this will be "an entirely new and better era" is a big step forward for Washington.

One aspect of all these events is that they've shown Washington in a new, less important role. Cameron and Sarkozy have made more forceful statements about Mubarak and Qaddafi. The wave of Arab revolutions has been neither created nor blocked from outside.

These developments have changed the status of the Arab in the world. The American right wing symbolized by the Fox News bigotry factory, as well as the Israeli hawks who wanted those "moderate" leaders to stay in power, fear and despise the Arabs more than ever now. But in the more reasonable world where views are modified as situations change, the Arab trend toward democracy demands a new level of respect. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, calls the new changes "The Arab Spring." In the face of all the coming changes, the superficial western image of the Arab peoples as backward no longer holds up, Khalidi writes. Even more important, the Arabs have gained back their own pride and self-respect. Their heads will be bloody but unbowed. Whatever happens in Libya, that cannot be taken away.

Tunisia's Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali out with the trash

Anti-intervention sign in Libya

          Early February demonstration in Yemen

Libyan celebrates fall of Tobruk

The Arab states:  most have had demonstrations

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