Tag Archives: tunisia

We, the (Arab) People

By Aarian Marshall

Like many people my age, I watched the Arab Spring on CNN, from my university’s Student Campus Center. Sometimes, someone would change the channel—March Madness was on, and basketball involves a crowd of people screaming plus the satisfaction of a conclusion in 90 minutes. And Egypt felt so far away, its people so different and its struggles so foreign. Though historic, it was difficult to identify with what was happening in a world so far removed from my own.

Underneath all the talking heads’ discussion and analyses, one consistent allusion stood out: “the people” of the region. “The people” of Tunisia and Egypt need to take change into their own hands; “the people” of Egypt and Tunisia need a little bit of help; the wants and needs of the Egyptian military don’t necessarily dovetail with what “the people” want.  New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled a recent column “It Has to Start With Them”, arguing that when “the people” of the Middle East own an initiative, they will be push themselves forward.  But who’s “them,” Thomas Friedman? Who’s “they”?

In the United States, “the people” is a clear signifier, something that used to demarcate this country from the rest of the world. Even if you don’t know a word of the Constitution, you’ll know “We the people.” It is no wonder, then, that in an Arab Spring discourse dominated by notions of democracy, “the people”—these shadowy, non-specific people—show up everywhere.

In a lovely column by film director Mohammad Ali Atassi, the former Syrian president’s son writes: “Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.” Those words are stirring, and they touch upon those golden keywords—freedom, aspire—that our American souls are drawn to. And yet, without the detail, the preciseness, it’s difficult to conceive of “the people” of the Middle East as actual human beings.

Perhaps my discomfort is synthesized best by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) in an article for The New Republic entitled “They the People.” The piece is outdated, published in March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. But it seems as if Nafisi’s words, written to another America in another time, apply today. The problem with America’s attitude towards the people of the Middle East, she writes, is that we

…seldom differentiate between the people of the ‘Muslim world’ and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors.

In Tunisia and Egypt, we hope that those oppressors are gone. Still, the problem of orientalism, of believing in the (often false) assumptions that gird the West’s ideas about the East, has not entirely gone away. There is “cultural baggage,” American historian Douglas Little writes, “that Americans carry with them,” even in a post-Arab Spring world. In other words, we insist upon boiling those who live in a Middle East down to a common denominator, albeit a bit differently from the way we boiled them down in the past. The issue, in Nafisi’s words, is differentiation, and I don’t hear that happening in policy discussions nearly as often as I would like.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the debate played out by three experts, who gathered in Washington, DC’s Academy for Educational Development to discuss the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, argued that economic reform is an essential companion to the social change that has already begun in Egypt and Tunisia, and warned that the work needed to become a democracy is “difficult and detailed.” The people of those countries, she argued, need to be ready for the long road ahead. Robert D. Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs at the Department of State, made similar economically based claims. Free markets and free societies, he told the audience, are inextricably linked. But it was Edward Walker, former Ambassador to Israel, the UAE and Egypt, who struck the most foreboding note. He argued that the U.S. is “limited in what [it] can do to shape the Arab summer”—an effective impetus, he said, can only come from the people of the region themselves. And most depressingly, he pointed out that things might not have changed that much in Egypt and Tunisia—perhaps the revolution is not so revolutionary after all.

As Clark pointed out during her talk, if the Arab Spring has confirmed anything, it’s that “the people of the Middle East are as interested in human rights and freedom as anyone else in the world.” We are one step closer, then, to understanding that those in that region are perhaps more similar to us than we ever could have thought.

Israel Next on Arab Revolutionary Agendas

By Gabriel Weinstein, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

Yoram Peri, seated, and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler. SHFWire photo by Gabriel Weinstein

On January 1, no one would have predicted protesters in Tahrir Square would oust Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi’s iron grip over Libya would start slipping away. Could an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement be the next game-changing event in the Middle East?

According to Professor Yoram Peri of the University of Maryland and former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, the revolutionary fervor sweeping the Middle East could present an ideal opportunity to finally settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peri said that, although the uprisings in Arab world focused on domestic issues, it is only a matter of time before the lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes the focus of the greater Arab world.

“If things will continue it won’t take much—weeks—that the Israeli-Palestinian issue will become the focus,” Peri said at a forum sponsored by the Middle East Institute Wednesday.

But the recent re-emergence of negative Arab stereotypes in the Israeli media and the infusion of religious emotion into the context of the conflict will prevent Israel from pouncing on the opportunity. He added that in the wake of the Arab uprisings, Israel has crafted its Palestinian peace strategy around a worst-case scenario instead of mounting a serious attempt at peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demonstrated Peri’s argument last week in a speech on the future of Egypt and the Palestinian peace negotiations when he said, “I cannot simply hope for the best. I must also prepare for the worst.”

“That’s a very typical way of thinking by most Israelis when they look at their future,” Peri said.

He said it is unlikely the government will take “a very brave step” desired by more liberal Israelis because of the increasingly conservative tint of the Israeli ruling coalition and a potential election looming.

Wexler echoed Peri and said that, although the stage seems set for finally resolving the conflict, it will most likely not happen if the world relies on Israeli and Palestinian leadership to take the initiative. Both at the forum and in a recent editorial in Politico, Wexler stressed the United States must intervene as quickly as possible to end the conflict. He predicted that if diplomats continue to wait for the crisis to resolve itself, “some catastrophic event will occur” in the West Bank or Gaza that could thrust Israel and the Palestinians into another conflict. He said he is not confident Netanyahu or Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will lead a diplomatic charge.

“The unfortunate reality is the decision rests here in Washington,” Wexler said. “And it rests with the Obama administration.”

Wexler said the recent events in the Middle East have made it the best time to rekindle peace talks. He called on the Obama administration to partner with Great Britain, Germany, France and other European countries to mediate talks between the two sides.

Peri agreed with Wexler’s call for international intervention. He said Israelis and Palestinians’ perception of the conflict as a zero-sum negotiation has prevented substantial progress from being made in the past. He said American intervention helped propel the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty because both sides were promised generous American military and economic aid.

“A third partner, and it only can be the United States and not Europe, can change the structure of the conflict to a non-zero-sum game. And therefore without…American support it will not be achieved,” Peri said.

The continued idleness of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will escalate the costs of the conflict. Both sides know what the basic outlines of a peace treaty will look like and need to muster the political will to strike a deal.

“To negotiate a half meter here, half a meter there that’s not the topic.…The issue is the will,” Peri continued. “The question is the price. Now what will be the price for not achieving an agreement.…Perhaps by showing both Israelis and Palestinians the price today is much higher than it used to be, that might change the perspective.”

Let My People Vote!

By Steven Philp

Egypt may lack a president, but it is not bereft of direction. Meeting two primary demands of pro-democracy protestors, Egyptian military leaders have dissolved the parliament, suspended the constitution and set a schedule for drafting a new one ahead of September elections. As the Washington Post details, this is one of the first steps towards civilian rule following the resignation of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. The ruling council has communicated that these changes will remain in effect for six months until presidential and parliamentary elections can occur. In the meantime a committee is being formed to amend the constitution, and provide a vehicle for popular referendum to approve these changes.

What is remarkable about these changes is their genesis within the citizens of Egypt. As noted by columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman, one of the mantras of the protestors sums it up: “The people made the regime step down.” This revolution occurred without the explicit endorsement of major world powers, the United States included. Rather support was not offered until after the conclusion of the protests, marked by the cessation of the Mubarak regime. Friedman notes that if – “and this is a big if” – the transition to democracy can successfully occur, it will resonate throughout the Middle East. This is not a model of government imported from the West – like the distinctly American institutions established in Iraq and Afghanistan – but one “conceived, gestated, and born in Tahrir Square.” Contingent on the success of the constitutional committee, it is one that will be shaped by the will of the people. This is a democracy that can be emulated throughout the Arab world, one that has refused the banner of the West while also rebuking the call of Islamists. When Iran issued a declaration compelling the protesters to label their movement an “Islamic revolution” it was the Muslim Brotherhood itself who resisted, noting that their focus is pan-Egyptian – which includes Christians and Muslims.

Although finding its origin in popular revolution the success of the nascent democracy should not rest on the people alone, but is the responsibility of the wider international community. It is in the best interest of the Egyptian people and foreign parties alike that this transition occurs. Several countries – including Israel – have issued statements of support for the pro-democracy movement. According to Haaretz, Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed hope for Egypt; speaking at the resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Peres offered his support to the budding democracy saying, “We bless the Egyptian people in anticipation that its desires for freedom and hope be met.” This comes only a week after Peres had offered an impassioned defense of Mubarak, on the grounds that his regime had been characterized by stability between Israel and Egypt. Although the transition to democracy is tenuous, the potential of improved relations between the two nations is tangible; yet it is important to note that the foundation for this relationship will be built now, necessitating immediate Israeli and Jewish support of the new regime.

This commitment to democracy will be tested further as the Egyptian revolution resonates across the Arab world. Already protests have begun to occur in Bahrain, Iran, Tunisia and the neighboring Palestinian Territories. According to the New York Times, officials in the Palestinian Authority responded to the toppling of the Mubarak regime by announcing presidential and parliamentary elections by September. The following day, the cabinet was dissolved until it could be appointed by democratic process. The Palestinian people have not participated in an election since 2006, when Hamas won a majority in the parliament. Following civil unrest in June 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip while the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization asserted authority over the West Bank. Currently, Hamas has rejected the call for a national election. This is an important moment for Israel, and the larger Jewish community. Rather than withholding our support – as we did with Egypt until the revolution succeeded – it would behoove us to stand with the P.L.O. on the side of freedom. Letting the people speak may lead to surprising results, including the emergence of a true democracy – one that emulates the Egyptian revolution, refusing Western models while also shedding the burden of the Islamist ethos.