By Neil Arun*
The destiny of the Middle East is being shaped by images from the streets of Cairo – but their impact in the region is not what we imagine in the West.
Commentators have taken to comparing the unrest in the Arab world to the collapse of Eastern European regimes in 1989. As an evocation of popular uprisings that “go viral”, this is effective enough.
But the analogy implies that the cracks spreading across the Middle East are, like the fissures in Soviet communism, a result of inbuilt structural flaws rather than external pressures.
This downplays the history of American dealings with the Arab world – more complex and colourful than its engagement with societies that were sealed behind the Iron Curtain.
To sense how the Middle East views the protests, we must revisit an unhappier chapter in the West’s relationship with the region.
Ten years ago, a small group of hijackers demolished the illusion that America had become invincible. As the dust settled over downtown Manhattan, Western governments discovered how policies pursued abroad could have unintended domestic consequences.
Their citizens suddenly felt exposed. Carried aloft by knives and a pilot’s manual, the violence of the world had found its way to their cities. It was, some said, a rude awakening from the American dream.
In the Middle East, many people believe they have been living in a joyless inversion of this dream – call it the Arab nightmare. Where the governments of Europe and North America are renewed through elections, the Middle East gets decades of dictatorship.
The region’s current crop of leaders are seen not as a reflection of their people’s aspirations, but as a projection of the fears of the world’s lone superpower. Once Soviet Russia was its foe; today it is the jihadists of al-Qaeda and the Israel-baiting theocrats of Iran.
As the most populous Arab country, Egypt is a centre of gravity in the Middle East, a seedbed for new trends in religion, culture and politics.
Many Egyptians regard President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade chokehold on power as an affront. They say its roots are in the paranoia of faraway nations – not in their country’s once-vibrant political climate.
If the 9/11 attacks marked the catastrophic moment when the West saw its foreign policies come crashing into the domestic arena, the protests in Cairo are their exuberant opposite.
The revolt against Mubarak is being seen – by Egyptians and by Arabs across the region – as a way of recovering domestic control over politics that have been decided for too long from abroad.
Communist Eastern Europe knew little of the West and embraced it when the Berlin Wall fell. The Egyptians who replace Mubarak will be more guarded. A single image from Cairo shows why.
The photo is of a young man scowling at the camera, his face half obscured by a scarf. In his hand is a spent tear-gas canister, its English instructions ending in the words, “Made in U.S.A.”.
Although Washington has given the demonstrators its backing, it cannot scratch its signature from the machinery being used against them. Having propped up Mubarak, it cannot count on the friendship of the forces now fighting him.
Who are these forces? The picture in the press is incomplete. As with the post-election unrest in Tehran in 2009, much of our media is mesmerised by its own reflection. Big news networks, catering to English-speaking audiences in the West, favour revolutionaries who speak the best English and appear most Westernised.
The vast majority of Egyptians live in poverty and do not speak English. Most are Muslims, and many now follow the faith more closely than their fathers did. Their rallies are not arranged by Facebook and Twitter; their favourite social networking sites are the mosque and the marketplace.
They want Mubarak out. They want the government that replaces him to improve their living standards and honour their religious and political beliefs.
If Egypt holds a free and fair election, the likeliest winner will be the Muslim Brotherhood, the venerable prototype for Islamist movements worldwide.
The Brotherhood is officially banned from politics because of its history of violence. But its sympathisers are the engine of Egypt’s opposition, defying successive crackdowns.
The movement’s leaders say the days of coups and assassinations are over; they want to work within a democracy. They expect to be rewarded at the ballot box for years of activism and charity among the urban poor.
The West might recognise itself among the secular, fresh-faced protesters in Cairo. It might see future allies among English-speaking exiles or senior officers of the military.
But were it to take a step back, it would also see that the natural successors to Mubarak are the men whom he jailed for their hard faith in political Islam.
If America is to accept them, it will have to jettison some deep phobias. The Muslim Brotherhood gave al-Qaeda’s ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, his taste for radicalism. Among his compatriots and affiliates is Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker of 9/11.
In more ways than one, the trauma of Ground Zero lends perspective to the euphoria of Cairo.
*Neil Arun spent two years as a journalist in Iraq and is now writing a book. He formerly worked for the BBC, reporting from the Balkans, Pakistan and the Caucasus. This comment was made available exclusively to G700. Please contact G700 for re-publication.