The moment of reckoning - Aijaz Zaka Syed - Monday, February 07, 2011

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The magic of poetry is invariably lost in translation. Yet I must share with the readers this translation of an extraordinary poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, South Asia’s revolutionary poet. He wrote the poem for extraordinary times like ours. It’s as though he had those marching on Egypt’s streets today in mind:

We shall see/Certainly we, too, will see/the day that has been promised us/Which is written on the tablet of Fate/We shall see/When the mountains of cruelty and torture/Will fly like pieces of cotton/Under the feet of the governed/This earth will shiver, shake and beat/And over the head of the tyrant/When lightening will thunder/We shall see/When from this God’s earth /All the idols will be removed/Only God’s name will remain/We shall see, certainly we too will see/We shall see

Indeed we shall see. What started as a spontaneous burst of anger in Tunisia has also turned into a full-blown revolution in Egypt, the birthplace of the most advanced civilisation in history and the eternal battleground of forces of the good and evil. And God only knows where this groundswell of people’s fury and long-repressed yearning for change in the most populous and vibrant Arab nation is going to turn next. Floodgates of change have been thrown open and nothing the forces of status quo and their masters do will stop it now.

After long years of suffering and tyranny, it seems the Middle East’s hour of reckoning has finally arrived. Que sera sera. What will happen shall happen. Indeed, the shockwaves of what is unfolding in Egypt could go far beyond the region, changing forever the Muslim world from Palestine to Pakistan and beyond. Just like the collapse of the Soviet Union set off the tsunami of revolutions, sinking regime after corrupt regime across Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

While a mesmerised world watches history being made in Egypt and the Middle East, what has endlessly fascinated me is the reaction of the self-styled champion of democracy, and its other equally democratic and freedom-loving allies. For days after the unprecedented protests that have shaken not just the Middle East but the world at large, one breathlessly waited in vain to hear the White House say the “D” word.

As demands for change reverberate across this vast land of great contradictions, home to three great faiths, the hypocrisy separating the West’s words and actions is breathtaking – almost obscene.

Tony Blair, who had the vision and courage to join George W’s cowboy alliance to end “tyranny and promote democracy and freedom” in the Muslim world, now says that “stability” of the Middle East is more important. On the second day of Egypt’s protests, Secretary Hillary Clinton reassures us, “we assess the situation as stable.”

What planet is she living on?

President Barack Obama, who over a year ago pontificated to the Muslim world about democracy among other things, has largely danced around the real issue at the heart of this confrontation. “I’ve always said to him (Mubarak) that moving forward on reform is absolutely critical,” emphasises the president. After nine days of protests, a poker-faced Obama agreed that Mubarak must begin an “orderly transition now.” Touche!

“Smooth transition of power” is Washington’s mantra in response to the angry, earth-shaking chants demanding real change in Egypt. One placard waved by a young Egyptian captured the irony of America’s predicament and Western double standards: “Yes, We Can Too!”

Obama’s ally across the Atlantic, David Cameron, philosophises, lecturing the protesting Egyptians that “democracy is not just holding elections; it’s block-building.” Oh yeah? But we heard something else from London and Washington after Iran’s presidential election last year?

Western and Israeli pundits warn of the doomsday itself if the fanatics of the Muslim Brotherhood, suppressed and banned for nearly half a century by the successive regimes, were allowed to replace Mubarak.

And amid this heart-warming support for democracy and the cause of Egyptian people by the West, the recurring concern that you come across on BBC and CNN and in Western newspapers is about the future of Egypt-Israel ties and their peace treaty. What happens to the Middle East’s (read Israel’s) stability if Mubarak goes, they ask. Would his successors be able to protect Israel and its interests?

Commentator after commentator obsesses over the fate of the Palestine-Israel peace process. What peace process? Where is the peace? Does it begin and end with the policing of the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt, the only way out of Gaza?

An agitated Israel has been imploring its allies that it’s in the interest of the West to stand by the Egyptian regime to “preserve stability in the region.”

President Shimon Peres bats for Mubarak saying, “Israel is grateful to Mubarak; he kept the peace in the Middle East.” Newspapers are crying of Obama’s great betrayal of Mubarak.

Writing in the Maariv, in a piece titled “A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam,” Aviad Pohoryles demands to know who’s advising the Americans “to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president, an almost lone voice of sanity in the region?” So much for Israel’s claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Clearly, as far as Israelis are concerned, “stability in the region” means a few million Jews living in “safety” and luxury on Palestinian land, at the expense of Arabs and world peace.

But no matter what anyone thinks or does now, the moment of reckoning has arrived for Egypt – and the Middle East. And Israel and its friends and puppets can do little to delay it. The regime’s desperate tactics to hold on to power by unleashing secret police and hired goons on anti-government protesters may buy it more time. It cannot delay or prevent it forever, though. Change is imminent. And the longer the regime tries to foil it, the greater the price Egypt will pay.

Change has come to the Middle East and it’s in the interest of the long ossified Arab and Muslim elites to be part of it. For far too long, they have blamed the region’s woes and problems on the West. Now is the time to take charge of their destiny.

Egypt has long been the intellectual and cultural leader of the Arab world. And what happens in the land of Nile in the next few days could not just change the face and map of the Middle East, it could impact the whole world. These developments offer a chance like no other to the Arabs as well as world powers to be on the right side of history. The world is watching the Arabs. They will miss this momentous opportunity at their own peril. As Faiz would say: We shall see. Certainly we too shall see. Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge.

The writer, who has written extensively on the Middle East and South Asia, is based in Dubai. Email:

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