These rulers hadn’t descended from the sky. They had emerged out of the Arab world’s sins of omission and commission. Today’s rebellions are animated, above all, by a desire to be cleansed of the stain and the guilt of having given in to the despots for so long.
There is no marker, no dividing line, that establishes with precision when and why the Arab people grew weary of the dictators. To the extent that such tremendous ruptures can be pinned down, this rebellion was an inevitable response to the stagnation of the Arab economies…Then, too, the legends of Arab nationalism that had sustained two generations had expired. Younger men and women had wearied of the old obsession with Palestine.
I disagree, not on some technicality, but profoundly and thoroughly. Individuals may sin, but to project those sins on to the whole Arab world – millions of people across several generations and more than 20 countries – is more than they deserve. Such a theory of collective guilt makes for powerful rhetoric, well-tuned to the preconceptions of Ajami’s audience, preconceptions that he has made a good living out of humouring. But it’s a little too close for comfort to some discredited 20th-century ideas that led to the deaths of millions. What sins did the young Egyptians who came out on the streets on January 25 have to expiate? Their failure to overthrow Hosni Mubarak when they were in their teens? Even the older generations, the ones who applauded the initiative and determination of their descendants, did not feel guilt, only regret that they had lived under tyranny so long. Most of them never connived in their own oppression. On the contrary, the main forces that conspired to oppress them were the very ones that Ajami serves and that he does not mention – the United States, the oil companies, the arms dealers, and all those who believed that ordinary Arabs should pay any price necessary for the sake of cheap oil and Israel’s immunity from accountability. Ajami’s reference to the demise of Arab nationalism and the ‘obsession with Palestine’ is a cheap shot, with little basis in reality. Arab nationalism in its traditional form has been on the decline for decades, but it may be evolving into a more pragmatic sense of Arab community, based on shared values and interests. The solidarity of the protest movements across national barriers has been striking – the common slogans, the use of each other’s flags, the joy in each other’s successes, the synchronicity. Whether the next governments of these Arab countries will abandon Palestine remains to be seen, but the dominant rhetoric for the moment is one of universal rights, including those of Palestinians. Ajami would like to see them pursue their narrow national interests. Hopefully they will ignore his advice.
There is no overstating the importance of the fact that these Arab revolutions are the works of the Arabs themselves. No foreign gunboats were coming to the rescue, the cause of their emancipation would stand or fall on its own. Intuitively, these protesters understood that the rulers had been sly, that they had convinced the Western democracies that it was either the tyrants’ writ or the prospect of mayhem and chaos.
A good moment to review what Ajami wrote in Foreign Affairs in early 2003, just before his adopted country invaded Iraq, and to remember that his hands are stained with the blood of the scores of thousands of Iraqis who have died in that disastrous adventure, an adventure he supported with reckless abandon and knowing disregard for the bloody consequences (“There is no need to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and givens of the region,” he wrote). His great hope at the time was that invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein would undermine Arab nationalism, disengage Iraq from the Palestinian cause, offer an alternative to ‘anti-Americanism’ and weaken Arab despots. Specifically on Egypt, he said: “There appears to be no liberal option of Egypt, no economic salvation… As the political life of the land has atrophied, anti-Americanism has taken hold… Iraq may offer a contrast, a base in the Arab world free of the poison of ant-Americanism.”
An Arab world rid of this kind of ruinous temptation (Saddam’s imperial ambitions) might conceivably have a chance to rethink the role of political power and the very nature of the state. It is often seemed in recent years that the Arab political tradition is immune to democratic stirrings. The sacking of a terrible regime with such a pervasive cult of terror may offer Iraqi and Arabs a break with the false gifts of despotism.
And on why the United States had to take on this great task:
It is the fate of great powers that provide order to do so against a background of a world that takes the protection while it bemoans the heavy hand of the protector.
Some order, some protection!
Not surprisingly, Ajami in 2011 does not even pretend that invading Iraq in 2003 had anything to do with the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 and all the events that have followed. The reason is simple: it was completely irrelevant.