Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Code to Cairo: 9/11, not 1989

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.


  1. In Greece we call these moments of regime change "Metapolitefsi". In a way Egypt is now having its moment of metapolitefsi. On behalf of G700 thanks a lot for the op-ed.

  2. this agression will not stand man...

  3. I totally agree with the article. At the end all comes down to perception [differences].

    The million dollar question for the West though is wether a secular islam can trully exist and work its way out of the deep rooted radicalism inside a more or less democratic regime.

    Is a democratic regime only by itself capable to fundamentally alter how these islamic societies percieve themselves?

    Not without some western know-how help:

    “More powerful states may be in position to alter the conceptions that the weaker actors have of their own self interests, especially when economic and military power has delegitimated ideological convictions in weaker or defeated societies.

    The United States, for instance, pressed for a particular vision of the international society should be ordered after World War II and renewed and reinvigorated this project after the end of the Cold War.

    The goal was not simply to promote a particular set of objectives, but to alter how other societies conceived of their own goals. The emphasis on what Nye has called soft power engages both realist concerns about relative capabilities and constructivism’s focus on beliefs and identity”.

    [Katzenstein/Keohane/Krasner , International Organization, vol. 52. 4 1998 p. 673]

    One has to keep also in mind that the regime change technics and soft power know-how is not that different from the rest of western technologies, talibans and radicals can learn how to use those things.

    Its as easy as throwing a US made smoke granade, or tweet with a smart phone!!

  4. @Neil Arun
    Congratulations on your article! It helps us Greeks to understand what is going on in our neighbourhood. In my opinion, the transitional period towards an “Arab-type” democracy has began. What matters is this transition to take place smoothly and peacefully. And this might well happen because the army has been acting as the guarantor of this smooth transition, having been able to diversify from Mubarak and having become very popular in the eyes of the Egyptian citizens. In this way, dictatorship is not considered as a military one, but a single person’s dictatorship with his own para-state support mechanism. Besides, the fact that Mubarak’s praetorians have been hindered by the army from acting violently has given credit to the army by the sum of the Egyptian citizens. The army’s distance from its former exquisite took place a long time ago. It seems like any kind of fear of Egypt’s Islamisation is being reduced by the army’s role as secular guard. I believe that a solution will be found soon and will mark the post-Mubarak era, in which Fundamentalism will be fought with democratic means and not with police methods that help reinforcing Fundamentalism rather than weakening it. It is going to be a long and mined path, but the Arab citizens have decided to get out of “freeze mode” and take the lucks of their countries in their own hands.

  5. Egyptians, more than any other nation in the Arab world, not only have a lot to lose being alienated from the West, but they also know it. They know it because of the structure of their state, the sources of their income, the personal contact they have had with Westerners.
    Justified Egyptian grievances or even rage are there, but if the US and the EU do not fall victims of their reflex fears now, these grievances will subside quickly under the exuberance of new freedoms and opportunities.
    I believe that a truly democratically elected Egyptian government will be a diplomatically moderate and socially progressive government.

  6. The right of the Arab people to choose their own systems of political organisation is unquestionable.

    Their way of life is also a reality that we Westerners must sooner or later accept if we are to allow for democracy to diffuse in their region.

    Demographically booming, these nations are hubs of radical thinking and action. But when one restricts another’s vital space for expression, a radical shift to extremism is also to be expected.

    The sooner the Arab nations get rid of dictatorial regimes the less risky a transition will be to states of governance insulated from the rule of religious/political extremism.

    The stance of the West, to traditionally support corrupt and oppressive dictators in the name of regional stability, has only postponed the inevitable power struggle between ‘secular’ rulers and their people.

    But our stance and the dictators’ domestic resilience has fuelled anger and moral populism that are making ground for another, equally dark, form of oppression.

    The pseudo-dilemma of stability vs democracy can no longer waive over demands for domestic political reform. There is an urgent need for supportive action by the West that will promote a swift transition to states of governance that respect and honour all citizens’ human and political rights. Anything else would be a time bomb of polarisation and aversion towards our own way of life.

    Islamic movements are capable of making the above realisation and can surely abide by it, just like our own domestic religious movements eventually did, under the pressure of the wave of enlightenment and the rise of politically relevant libertarian values.

    But hoping for a non-Islamic, western type secular democracy is merely a misconception, at least for now. Peaceful, fair and open, yes, an Islamic democracy can certainly be. But different to our model of political governance it will also be, with the Sharia way of life drawing the dividing line.

    Is the West ready to accept this and lay down its own fears? It is in our hands to build a consensus for a 1989 in Arab nations' homes, and to avoid a 9/11 era in ours.