Literate, informed and sympathetic commentary from a Westerner

March 3, 2011

In News

WHO WOULD have known? The Arab Awakening of 2011 is remaking our world in a totally unexpected manner. With their peaceful, non-violent uprising, the Egyptian people have managed to do what the Chinese at Tiananmen Square failed to do in 1989. Who could have predicted this? Who could have imagined just a month ago that the Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain would be tottering from its 250-year-old throne? Who could have predicted that the ‘Clown’ of Tripoli — Muammar Gaddafi — would be using fighter jets to mow down unarmed protesters? Who could have known that the Cairo uprising would spread to the streets of Sana’a, Amman, Algiers, Rabat and Benghazi?

Arab youth seized their destiny from the dying old order and are demanding their piece of modernity

And clearly, the wave of popular demands for democratisation across the Arab world is not finished. I dearly hope it will continue to wash across the region, taking down the corpulent monarchs and cruel military dictators who have suppressed their people for nearly four decades. What we are witnessing is simply an astonishing revolution. Astonishing, first because the contagion demonstrates that the Arabs are no longer mere tribes with flags. To the contrary, the Arabicspeaking people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Arabia are indeed bound together by a common language, culture and now, Facebook. And what they are achieving is astonishing because it is happening not with guns, but with the Gandhian tactics of mass civil disobedience.

And finally, it is astonishing because all this is happening without the archaic shroud of Islamist religiosity. Yes, there are mullahs in the streets and cries of “Allah O Akbar”, but the culture of this revolution is secular. These are young Arab men and women seizing their destiny from the dying old order and demanding their piece of modernity in the 21st century.

All of this is somewhat unexpected, particularly in the west. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Arabs are like any other people — and that they yearn for a civil society endowed with human rights and a democratic means of governance. The late intellectual Edward Said’s critique of the ‘Orientalists’ has thus been vindicated by the protesters in Tahrir Square.

The upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere marks the demise of two generations of stagnation in the Arab world that began with the Naksa (setback or amputation) — the Arabic word to describe the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war. That loss ushered in a cynical era of autocracy, corruption, repression and fatalism. It marked the defeat of the secular Arab project and profoundly humiliated Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, the last Arab leader who could plausibly claim to reflect the broad popular will. Nasser’s defeat was also the defeat of any notion that the Arab world had a progressive, modernist future.

In the wake of the 1967 war, Egyptian pundit Mohamed Heikel punned that power had shifted in the Arab world from thawra (revolution) to tharwa (wealth). Not incidentally, the defeat of secular Arab nationalism created an intellectual vacuum that was filled by religiosity. As Syria’s Yale-trained philosopher Sadik al-Azm wrote, “At the same time, the political regimes responsible for the military defeat began utilising religion in general and Islam in particular in a campaign designed to protect them from the aftermath of the defeat.”

Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat adopted the language of Islam, partly in an attempt to co-opt the Muslim Brotherhood and give himself a semblance of legitimacy. He cracked down on the secular left, and shifted the regime to the right with his Open Door policies, welcoming American investment and influence. In the wake of the October 1973 war, Sadat was briefly seen as a genuinely popular national leader. In November 1977, he astonished everyone by flying to Jerusalem. Most Egyptians were tired of war, and so welcomed the subsequent Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. But at the same time, Israel was still regarded with suspicion and even hostility. It was always a cold peace.

AND THEN , of course, Sadat was assassinated by a group of army officers associated with a cell of radical Islamists. The man who succeeded him, Air Force General Hosni Mubarak, was a political non-entity. Mubarak was the antithesis of Nasser in every way. He used the military apparatus of Nasser’s populist police State to sustain himself in power, but ditched the populism. Instead, he surrounded himself with a mercantile class of supplicants whom he favoured with government contracts and outright graft. Nasser died with a modest bank account; Mubarak’s family and associates have amassed fortunes reportedly worth $40-$70 billion. The new pharaoh ruled with arrogance, tolerated by the public out of a sense of fatalism and helplessness. But now the Egyptian people, led by a younger generation, have unceremoniously driven him from power. He is gone, and with him an era.

The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories now have a road map for joining the Arab Awakening

The Obama administration has no control over these events. But it should have understood weeks ago that it would be disastrous if the new era begins without the clear perception that the US is on the side of the Egyptian people. This is not the time for talking about an orderly transfer of power. No doubt, there are those in Washington who fear that the Arab Awakening signals the end of the Camp David regime, which has kept the peace between Egypt and Israel for 30 years.

BUT A democratic Egypt could, in the long run, deliver to Israel something much better than Camp David’s moribund cold peace. At the time, US President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 Camp David Accords — followed by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty — were a diplomatic triumph. But Carter’s successors failed to get Israel’s prime ministers to loosen their grip over the territories occupied in 1967. Over the decades, Washington ritualistically condemned the building of more settlements in the West Bank — but did nothing to stop them. As such, Camp David is as discredited in the eyes of the Egyptian masses as is Mubarak himself. Indeed, Mubarak was so despised partly because for three decades he made Egypt an accomplice to Israel’s unilateralism.

But this does not mean that the Egypt of the Tahrir Square era will confront Israel militarily, or even break diplomatic relations. There is no domestic appetite for war. Nevertheless, the cold peace Israel has forged with Arab dictators is unravelling. This may, in the short term, empower Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud ideologues who will argue that Arab democrats are out to ‘delegitimise’ Israel. But in the long run, the emergence of an Arab democratic polity should convince Israeli voters that their leaders have become too complacent and too isolationist. After Tahrir, a majority of Israelis may conclude that they can’t live in the neighbourhood without forging a real peace with their neighbours

March on Anti-government protesters in Manama, Bahrain


The separation wall was never a real answer to Israel’s security predicament, and it will be less so when a democratically elected government governs Egypt. The policy of separation — hafrada in Hebrew — had some short-term strategic viability when the largest Arab country was willing to police Israel’s southern border and keep Hamas penned up inside its Gaza prison. But no legitimate government in Cairo will be able to continue its complicity with the Gaza blockade — particularly not if the Muslim Brotherhood is even a minor player in a new government.

In reality, Israel will come under renewed pressure to deal with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas’ ideology is certainly vile, but it won the last Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and has more or less observed a ceasefire with Israel since early 2009. In December 2010, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, announced that his party would abide by any peace settlement if it were to be ratified by a referendum of the Palestinians. Furthermore, as we recently learned from Al Jazeera’s Palestine Papers — the leaked documents on the 2008 Abbas-Olmert talks — the two sides aren’t that far apart on a comprehensive peace settlement that would create a Palestinian State.

So here is the uplifting news: What is happening in Tahrir may actually propel the politicians in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah to forge the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that we know is there for the taking. And if that doesn’t happen? If there is no comprehensive peace settlement, Israel and the US will find themselves increasingly isolated in the new West Asia.

Here is another possibility. In the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state settlement, things are going to fall apart. The status quo in Jerusalem cannot survive. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories now have a road map for joining the Arab Awakening. After 44 years of Israeli occupation, they are deeply frustrated, not only with the Israelis, but with their own leaders. A third Intifada could erupt at any moment. But this time, it will be an uprising modelled after the non-violent protesters of Tahrir Square. What then? How will Bibi Netanyahu maintain the occupation in the face of mass civil disobedience?

Sure, there are imponderables and risks. The Arab Awakening could be momentarily defeated here or there by a general riding a tank. If that happens, the US should break relations with the new dictator and impose economic sanctions. To do anything else would send a message to a new generation of Arabs that, like Mubarak, Americans don’t think Arabs are ready for democracy.

Mercifully, I don’t yet see Egypt headed that way. Neither do I see the Arab Awakening being hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood or worse, an Islamist backlash. Something else is happening in the Arab street — something extraordinarily good for the Arab world, but also good for Israel and America. We should embrace it.

This essay is adapted from an article that appeared in the Foreign Policy magazine

(Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and the author most recently of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956- 1978. This book is a meld of personal memoir and history, fusing his early life in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt. Bird is the co-author with Martin J Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prizewinning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer (2005). He wrote The Chairman: John J McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (1992) and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998). He is a member of the Society of American Historians and a contributing editor of The Nation. Bird lives in Kathmandu with his wife and son.)