Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Arab Liberal Explains What's Wrong and Dreams His Worst Nightmare

By Barry Rubin

You couldn’t do better to understand the contemporary Middle East than through an al-Jazira television program recorded and translated by MEMRI. The speaker is Moncef al-Marzouki, a Paris-based Tunisian human rights activist.

Note: if you read to the end of this article you will encounter the stinger, like a horror movie’s last scene when the monster leaps out and devours the hero.

Marzouki lives in Paris, which tells a lot. It’s hard to live in the Arabic-speaking world and express such frank opinions. Moreover, he is very much exposed to Western influences which flavors his thought and, by the same token, distances him from those living in the Middle East.

While under the themes of Political Correctness and multiculturalism, those in the West celebrate and flatter Arab political culture, the people who actually live under that system are in despair.

While those in the West usually argue the main complaint of Arabic-speakers is about what foreigners do to them, their real problem is what their own leaders do to them.

While in Western universities, students are most often taught about the Middle East along the lines of Arab nationalist ideology, their best counterparts in the region are imprisoned and tortured by regimes holding that doctrine. Meanwhile, these victims’ ill-treatment of is applauded by the Western professors’ ideological counterparts in the Arabic-speaking world.

This doesn’t mean demagoguery and xenophobia—far more common in the Middle East against the West than vice-versa—don’t inflame popular feeling into a murderous rage against non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Nor does it mean that all of this is mere artificial incitement which would not otherwise exist in the mass population.

In short, those who believe Arabs are just waiting to be liberated from their rulers so as to become moderate democrats are wrong. Yet those who think they are just being stirred up by Western policies are also wrong. Indeed, it is the hatreds and misconceptions of the West and of Israel which make peace and cooperation largely impossible.

Khodhari states:

"The Arab peoples have gone from being subservient to and humiliated by a totalitarian, tyrannical ruler, to being subservient to and humiliated by the ruler's son….I believe that within five years, these peoples will bow down to the ruler's chauffeur. I swear that within a decade, they will cheer the ruler's barber, and obey his orders."

This is the despair of the would-be Arab democrat. The reference is to the succession of Bashar al-Assad to his father, Hafiz, as Syria’s dictator, and of the likely impending succession of Gamal Mubarak to his father, Husni, as Egypt’s ruler.

Khodhari is furious about the masses' passivity:

"These dead peoples, which know no shame, and which have become addicted to slavery, conceal all the signs of their humiliation, death, and submission, and shield themselves with the Palestinian cause, and the living, courageous, and heroic Palestinian people. However, I believe that if the Arab peoples turned their backs on the Palestinian cause... The heroic Palestinians must not seek the help of slaves [which means] most of the Arab peoples."

Once again we see the overwhelming symbolism of the Palestinian cause. The liberal portrays the “refusal” of Arabs to fight for the Palestinians as proof of how they have been reduced to slaves of the regime. But the truth is the exact opposite: the use of this issue to blind people to their own national and individual self-interest has been one of the greatest weapons of the regimes, and of their totalitarian Islamist rivals as well.

The problem, of course, is that Arabs don’t see themselves as being passive and addicted to slavery. On the contrary, they see themselves as active and fighting for liberation. Why? Because they are supporting the resistance to Western imperialism and Zionism. That’s why they don’t respond to Khodhari’s argument, they have an alternative route to feeling good about themselves that’s more emotionally satisfying and far safer.

After all, there is no cost to inveighing against foreign enemies. It’s like the joke about the Soviet and the American arguing in the 1970s. The Soviet says: “I can go to Red Square and say, `Down with America!” And the American says, “So can I. But I can also go to the Capitol and say down with America. Can you go to Red Square and say, `Down with the USSR?’”

Marzouki then raises a second point, about his witnessing the May 1968 rebellion in France when, despite many sometimes violent confrontations:

“Not a single Frenchman was killed….What happened in Hama [Syria]? 20,000 dead. What happened in Egypt? What happened in Tunisia? They sprayed them with machine-guns. And the list goes on….All this is in addition to the concentration camps…hundreds of thousands who were imprisoned [and] tortured….These are terrorist states which…treat their peoples as if they were flies that must be sprayed with pesticide.”

He concludes—something obviously true but few if any Western professors would dare say—that the repression since independence has been far worse than that under colonialism.

But there is hope, Marzouki concludes. There’s the work of NGOs, “the number of journalists in prison, and the number of peoples in exile.” Here are two problems. First, NGOs generally remain very weak and most larger ones are either regime fronts or Islamist ones. Second, while the number of prisoners and exiles show people oppose the regime it also indicates they have done so unsuccessfully. And most don’t want to be in prison or exile. If that’s the price of being democratic activists few will have the courage to do so.

And here’s the big finish: "There was an armed rebellion in Algeria, and today, there is an armed rebellion in Yemen….And these despicable regimes are on the verge of collapse."

Oh, dear! The armed rebellion in Algeria is by the local franchise of al-Qaida; that in Yemen by Islamists backed by Iran. Like the Communists in 1930s Germany who insisted Nazi rule would only be prelude to a Red takeover, liberals in the Arab world must contend with the fact that the revolutionaries today would be even worse in power than the incumbent regimes. So much for hope.

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