VIEW: A Tunisami hits the Arab world —Razi Azmi - Thursday, February 03, 2011

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Islamists are gaining popularity not because they wish to destroy Israel or the US, but because they give vent to the genuine grievances of their people against incompetent, corrupt and oppressive regimes

A political tsunami has hit Egypt. Call it a Tunisami, after its place of origin. A contagion of mass revolt is gripping the Arab world. The popular upheaval that started in tiny Tunisia has now engulfed Egypt, the giant of the Arab world. Who would have thought that events in a quiet, small, insignificant country situated on the fringe of the Sahara would have such repercussions? But they have shaken the most populous Arab country and sent shockwaves not only in other Arab capitals but also in Washington and Tel Aviv, but for very different reasons.

While Arab regimes are now worried about their own survival, Washington is sleepless with a different anxiety — instability or an Islamist government in Cairo (and, heavens forbid, in Amman) might threaten Israel’s security.

Does anyone remember President Obama’s fine speech in Cairo, or his no less eloquent orations in Turkey and Indonesia, extending the US’s hand of friendship to the Muslims of the world? Long ago, they had faded into distant memory, drowned out by the sounds of American artillery shells and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Israeli bombardment and tirades against Gaza.

Now the thunder of revolt on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Suez, Sanaa, Algiers and Amman reverberates loud and clear, far and near. Washington counts the Egyptian regime among its close allies and supports it with $ 1.5 billion annually in aid. Instead of extending unflinching support to the people of Egypt as he did when protesters in Tehran came out onto the streets, President Obama phoned Mubarak to urge him to take “concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people”. Surely he knows that the popular rage on the streets of Cairo is directed personally against Hosni Mubarak more than anyone else. To ask him, then, to launch reforms when confronted with a popular revolt is either ignorant or insulting.

When the frustrated people of Egypt say “Yes, we can”, President Obama reminds them of their “responsibility to express themselves peacefully” in the face of violent attacks by the police. When the youth of Egypt risk their lives in their tens of thousands shouting “Down, down with Mubarak”, the American president urges Mubarak to “deliver on the promises of reform”.

Promises? What promises? As if a president who has been in power for nearly 30 years has not had time to deliver on his promises, he is now being urged to promise to deliver on his promises! To placate the demonstrators, Mubarak has dismissed his cabinet when he should have dismissed himself and joined Ben Ali in blessed Saudi Arabia, the custodian of all Muslim leaders rejected and ejected by their own people.

Dear President Obama, your great country — recognised by all as a beacon of freedom and opportunity — is seen to be allied with despicable, corrupt and unrepresentative regimes such as those in Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. At the same time it boycotts, sanctions and ostracises, because of their political persuasion, elected governments in Iran and Palestine (Hamas) — governments that enjoy equal legitimacy and greater popularity than those you choose to be allied with.

In a few days, the elected Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon is destined to earn your wrath and invite sanctions. Some years ago, the White House was delighted when, in Algeria, a junta of generals quashed countrywide elections, which the Islamists were poised to win. But every American president for two decades has denounced the Burmese generals for the same offence of cancelling the results of elections. The only difference being that it was not Islamists who were winning the Burmese elections.

Double standards do not go down well with the people of the world, and not just Muslims. Such policies quickly strengthen the very forces they aim to weaken or crush. They turn bigots (President Ahmadinejad) into heroes and extremists (FIS in Algeria, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon) into champions of democracy.

We know, sir, you are worried that the Islamists might seize power in the Arab countries either through elections or through popular uprisings. But to the extent that the people of those countries support those Islamists, you are seen to stand in opposition to the people and in cahoots with their oppressors. The danger, Mr President, is that your fear of an Islamist takeover in a major Arab country may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you persist with your Israel-centric policies, which lead your country to become the protector, supporter and financier of despicable undemocratic regimes for the sake of ‘stability’ and a status quo that suits your country and Israel.

Islamists are gaining popularity not because they wish to destroy Israel or the US, but because they give vent to the genuine grievances of their people against incompetent, corrupt and oppressive regimes. Whether you like the Islamists or not, you cannot wish them away or destroy them with sanctions or with the help of corrupt dictators and kings.

Today’s Islamists are like adolescents with high testosterone levels. Like all ‘crazy’ adolescents, they too will mature into adults. Time and circumstance will chasten them. Their utopian ships will quickly sink in the maelstrom of economics, politics and diplomacy. Once in power, they will discover that running a state is very different from organising rallies and fulminating from the pulpit. They cannot go against the world and win! But when they lead their people’s just struggle, as now, they cannot lose and you cannot win.

It is true that not all oppressive regimes in the Middle East are supported by you. Some, in fact, thrive despite your opposition. I have in mind Libya, Syria and, of course, Iran. Regardless of what the conspiracy theorists and US-haters say, Washington does not control the world. God knows that you have tried and have failed to bring about regime change in Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Libya, as well as in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Regime change in Iraq almost choked your predecessor.

Your intentions may be good, but they must also look good. As things stand, when people have overthrown hated, corrupt regimes across the Middle East, as they have already done in Tunisia and, sooner or later, will do in Egypt and elsewhere, they will have nothing to thank you for. Let it not be said that the Egyptian popular revolt was crushed by the despised Mubarak regime with weapons and funds provided by the US.

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