Fouad Ajami, one of my favorite Middle East writers, reports on the impressions he got from his recent trips to the Middle east:
To venture into the Arab world, as I did recently over four weeks in Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq, is to travel into Bush Country. I was to encounter people from practically all Arab lands, to listen in on a great debate about the possibility of freedom and liberty. I met Lebanese giddy with the Cedar Revolution that liberated their country from the Syrian prison that had seemed an unalterable curse. They were under no illusions about the change that had come their way. They knew that this new history was the gift of an American president who had put the Syrian rulers on notice. The speed with which Syria quit Lebanon was astonishing, a race to the border to forestall an American strike that the regime could not discount. I met Syrians in the know who admitted that the fear of American power, and the example of American forces flushing Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole, now drive Syrian policy. They hang on George Bush’s words in Damascus, I was told: the rulers wondering if Iraq was a crystal ball in which they could glimpse their future.
The weight of American power, historically on the side of the dominant order, now drives this new quest among the Arabs. For decades, the intellectual classes in the Arab world bemoaned the indifference of American power to the cause of their liberty. Now a conservative American president had come bearing the gift of Wilsonian redemption. For a quarter century the Pax Americana had sustained the autocracy of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: He had posed as America’s man on the Nile, a bulwark against the Islamists. He was sly and cunning, running afoul of our purposes in Iraq and over Israeli-Palestinian matters. He had nurtured a culture of antimodernism and anti-Americanism, and had gotten away with it. Now the wind from Washington brought tidings: America had wearied of Mr. Mubarak, and was willing to bet on an open political process, with all its attendant risks and possibilities. The brave oppositional movement in Cairo that stepped forth under the banner of Kifaya (“Enough!”) wanted the end of his reign: It had had enough of his mediocrity, enough of the despotism of an aging officer who had risen out of the military bureaucracy to entertain dynastic dreams of succession for his son. Egyptians challenging the quiescence of an old land may have had no kind words to say about America in the past. But they were sure that the play between them and the regime was unfolding under Mr. Bush’s eyes.
Indeed, this is a spectacular meeting in time. The fact is that people everywhere want some same basic things, summed up by the Virginian Renaissance Man, Thomas Jefferson, thus: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As the world has modernized, the list of demands has grown, but the same basic rights underlie all. Thus, given an opportunity, the people will act.
Unfortunately, American power hasn’t always been on the right side. For this, America is understanbly excoriated and suspected. But it is curious (though not to true liberals) that anti-Americanism is strongest in relatively peaceful societies that are yet repressed by nominal allies of the United Sates (e.g., Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), and yet not quite as strong among the people abandoned by America when they sought to answer her bright call (the Shiites of Iraq).
This time, though, America might just be on the right side, and, at the very least, her intentions seem true and sincere. A glaring exception thus far, however, is in Uzbekistan. But that will not stop Lebanese activists from pursuing their own opportunity to try the democratic experiment, especially as America keeps an eye on, and continues to pressure, Syria.
Mr. Ajami even draws the obvious correlation with Europe at the end of the Cold War:
As I made my way on this Arab journey, I picked up a meditation that Massimo d’Azeglio, a Piedmontese aristocrat who embraced that “springtime” in Europe, offered about his time, which speaks so directly to this Arab time: “The gift of liberty is like that of a horse, handsome, strong, and high-spirited. In some it arouses a wish to ride; in many others, on the contrary, it increases the desire to walk.” It would be fair to say that there are many Arabs today keen to walk–frightened as they are by the prospect of the Islamists coming to power and curtailing personal liberties, snuffing out freedoms gained at such great effort and pain. But more Arabs, I hazard to guess, now have the wish to ride. It is a powerful temptation that George W. Bush has brought to their doorstep.
Read the whole thing, and thank goodness for writers like Mr. Ajami!
[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]