During the past sixty years US politicians have convinced Americans citizens that some of the world’s tyrants and dictators are “strong and dependable allies of the US.” To wit the State Department’s official statements about Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during the first few days of the uprising that has swept Egypt like a firestorm.
The emergence of two super powers soon after World War II set the stage for a politically and ideologically polarized world; Communism became our arch enemy, and anti-communist dictators, regardless of their tyrannical rule, became our allies “in the fight to keep communism from spreading around the world.” Is this not how we were sold on the Vietnam War?
Perceived to have Communist sympathies, Muhammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s duly elected Prime Minister, was ousted from office in 1953 in a CIA orchestrated coup de dat. His Majesty Shahanashah Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings, was propped up on the Iranian Imperial Peacock Throne. The CIA would eventually train his SAVAK secret police in the art of torture. Twenty six years later, the Shah fled Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini triumphed into Tehran to supposedly save the Iranians from a tyrant who’d become an American puppet. The results have not been pleasant for Iranians, the Near East, and the world. Closer to home, in 1973 the CIA orchestrated another coup de tat in Chile; Augusto Pinochet, “a strong ally,” ruled brutally and tyrannically until his removal in 1990.
Poor decision-making by successive US Administrations, our addiction to oil, strong lobbying of congress by interest groups more concerned with their own foreign policy agendas, and strategic regional concerns are but four of many factors for America’s support of tyrants all over world. The latter translates into protecting “our vital interests,” a euphemism for assuring American corporations favorable access to natural resources of foreign countries, cheap labor, markets for US products, and the control of strategic water, land, and air routes for rapid military deployment.
While the disintegration of the Soviet Union helped spawn freedom movements in the former Soviet Block, the Philippines, and a handful of Latin American nations, the Arab World and Israel moved in the opposite direction. The so-called peace treaty between Egypt and Israel paved the way for Israel’s 1982 disastrous invasion of Lebanon, and, now that Egypt, the largest military threat to Israel, was neutralized, successive Israeli governments diverted the heretofore defense expenditures to a massive settlement building program in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. To accomplish this goal, Palestinians had to be brutally suppressed. Israel, “Our strongest ally in the region” is, indeed, the only democracy in the Near East, yet its democratic ideals extend only to its Jewish citizens; Israeli Arabs are treated as second class citizens, and Palestinians in the occupied territories live under the indignity of military occupation.
Enter the Iran-Iraq War of 1979 which pitted Iraq’s Sunni Hussein against Iran’s Shia Khomeini. US support for Iraq’s brutal dictator came in many forms, including weapons, chemicals, technology and intelligence. As long as Hussein exchanged his petro dollars for American goods in the fight against Iran, his brutal rule was condoned; testimony to the aforementioned is a photograph of Dick Cheney hugging Hussein prior to the latter’s decision to invade oil-rich Kuwait. As part of the propaganda to oust Hussein from Kuwait with the help of several regional “strong allies” (many of whom continue to be brutal dictators), the charge that “he used chemicals to kill his own people” became a rallying slogan to support the war. Yes, Hussein had gassed some 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, but why was there no prior condemnation? Is it because economic concerns trumped moral indignation?
Enter yet another cataclysmic event. 9/11 changed the landscape on many fronts, and the new enemy became “Islamic terrorists.” In his attempt to “win the hearts and minds of the Arab World” and “bring democracy” to a region whose population is governed by brutal dictators, George W. Bush launched the second Gulf War. True, Saddam Hussein has been dealt with, but the verdict on the war’s outcome is iffy at best. Planting democracy in Iraq came at a high cost, especially to the Iraqis whose dead numbered well over 100,000, 4 million refugees, and an infrastructure pulverized back to the Stone Age.
Since 9/11, and because of much needed intelligence and logistical support, the list de jour of “strong allies” has grown exponentially. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco, to name but a few, are the new club members. They provide military bases, intelligence and logistical support, the rendition of suspected terrorists and, worse of all, to circumvent US laws, they torture suspects on our behalf. Egypt and Jordan have been singled out for such torture.
Early last week Nobel laureate Muhammad El Baradei summed up the aspirations of the masses of Egypt, and, by extension, the Arab world, thusly: “If there is no democracy, there is no life.” Albeit slowly, democracy will come to the Arab world pending the following happen: President Obama becomes more proactive and vocal in holding the rulers of the Arab world to account for their tyrannical rule (last year’s sale of $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia is foolish); he exerts pressure on Israel to realize that a two-state solution is in its best interest; Arab rulers must democratize their regimes and join the 21st century; the Arab masses must keep the religious fanatics at bay and adhere to the adage I often heard while growing up in the Near East: “Al Deenu lil’Lah, wal watan lil jami” (Religion is God’s and country is for all); and Israel, a lynchpin in any democratic future for the region, must realize that it cannot continue to rule over 3.5 million Palestinians yearning for dignity and freedom – apartheid regimes that build walls of separation poison the hearts and minds of their own citizens.
In 1990 in Cairo I had the privilege of interviewing Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, on the fifth floor of his Al Ahram (The Pyramids) office, the Arab world’s largest newspaper. In his closing comments he stated the following: “Egypt had a glorious past. For 3,500 years we made outstanding contributions to civilization, yet during the last 1,500 years we’ve stood on the sidelines, observing, instead of helping make history.” In like manner, while Europe was in deep slumber, the Arabs made history with their great accomplishments in every field of learning, and their contributions helped spawn Europe’s Renaissance. It is time for the Umma Al Arabiya (the Arab nation) to stop living on the glorious laurels of the past and join a 21st century world that values individual freedom and human rights for all, men as well as women. If the masses of the Arab world adhere to Gandhi style civil disobedience, then this historic tsunami, which began in Tunisia and might very well travel west to Libya and Morocco and east to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, will, Insha’Allah (God Willing), depose the tyrants of the Arab world.
As for Israel’s Netanyahu, he has two options. He can either use the turmoil in Egypt to dig in and follow the illusive dream of a Greater Israel, or he can sit down with the Palestinians to hammer out a permanent and just peace.
Tyrants of Mubarak’s ilk hang on to power for as long as possible, no matter the cost, and historic events afford leaders rare opportunities; great leaders know how to seize these opportunities. Depending on how the transition in Egypt plays out, the leaders of the Arab World and Israel cannot afford to miss an opportunity created by a most unique seismic tremor whose impact is reverberating throughout the world.
Scribbled in English on a poster carried by a young Egyptian demonstrator were four words which sum up the aspirations of millions of Arabs: “Yes, we can too.” President Obama, himself a product of the changes this country afforded him, should lead the Arab, Israeli and international choir by stating “I know we can. Let’s get down to the business of change and peace in earnest.” And for their part, Naguib Mahfouz’s prophetic words that Egypt “stood on the sidelines, observing, instead of helping make history,” have never been more true.
RAOUF J. HALABY, a naturalized US citizen, is of Palestinian heritage. He is a Professor of English and Art at Ouachita University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas