The View from the Arab World
Ken in Riyadh
I heard the news about Mubarak from a friend and turned on Al-Jazeerah. An Egyptian woman was being interviewed and was weeping with joy; she could barely get her words out.
I sat down on the bed and sobbed with relief, just sobbed.
I hadn’t realized how much tension I’d been holding, worrying about Egypt. I really believed that if he didn’t leave quickly, things could descend into bloodshed, and who knows where that would go. Now there is hope for a peaceful transition to a new world.
After composing myself, I went to the hotel’s business center to print something and ran into a few of the Egyptians I know (everyone is glued to the Internet, even Reception). I put my hand on my heart and said ‘Mabruk’ – congratulations. Everyone’s eyes were wet, shining.
I started to write the below a few days ago. I have been overwhelmed with work and exhausted, so having trouble keeping up, but I want to send something tonight, with my mind so alive with hope.
This morning I read in the Arab News something that stayed with me. A young Egyptian said for the first time in his memory, it was cool to be Arab. I think he hit at something deep. I have felt for years that the Arabs have suffered from a great loss of dignity. Emerging from centuries of Ottoman rule, they had great hopes for freedom and a new future. But the Europeans had different plans, dismembering the Arab world to fit their needs. Then came Israel, and a series of humiliating defeats. Remember, Egypt had not been a truly independent state since the time of Cleopatra and was thrust into war with a far superior adversary within less than a generation of independence.
For the past forty years, signed in blood on September 11th, the Arabs have been the west’s Bad Guys, seen to a person as violent and ignorant, far from the historical self-image (and reality) of the region’s peoples. They have grown poorer each day under dictatorships, often in collusion with our own government, while watching their erstwhile backwards cousins in Arabia grow rich beyond imagination thanks to the accident of geography and our unquenchable thirst for oil. The People Power revolutions in Tunisia then Egypt have given people, especially young people, hope that a turning point may be afoot.
I sit here in Arabia, a Red Sea away from Egypt, wondering how this story will unfold.
I am writing some thoughts about both Tunisia and Egypt, two countries I know well and hold dear. Feel free to let me know what you think.
I spent three wonderful years of my life in Tunisia, and another two fascinating years in Egypt. The news from each has both thrilled and worried me.
Tunisia and the Maghreb
My love affair with the Arab world began in North Africa, in Morocco. I went on my junior year Mediterranean studies program for the bit in Venice, but found myself smitten by Morocco. I was determined go back to the Magrheb (North Africa) after college. The Peace Corps told me Morocco was full but Tunisia was even nicer, not as exotic but very gentle and sweet. Indeed it was and I ended up spending three amazing years of my life there.
I spent my first two years on Kerkennah, a languid, palm-studded island off the southern coast – near Libya – about the size of Manhattan, but with twelve thousand souls.
I taught English to high school students, the sons and daughters of fishermen and farmers. It was among the best two years of my life. The culture was rich, intact, and hospitable. I found that I learned Tunisian Arabic quickly, and French, which I spoke with my housemate Pierre.
I was a popular teacher, and as I rode my three-speed orange bike up and down the lone paved road on the island, cries of “Meester Dorph” would ring out, even from kids who were not my students. I learned the local card games, fasted during Ramadan, swam in the bay, and studied kamanja, the Arab violin, with the high school music teacher.
Kerkenna made me realize that I wanted to live in a small town by the sea (hey, Sag Harbor!). Sometimes I think if I had been rather more heterosexual, I would have converted to Islam and married Zeinab, the modest, beautiful Arabic teacher. Life was that good and Tunisian values, strangely, seemed not far from my own. For someone with my, ahem, strong social needs I loved the sense of community. There are so many social glue phrases in Tunisian Arabic. I recall ‘an-nas-bik’ – meaning ‘may people be with you’ – that a pair or group would say as an evening greeting to anyone walking alone. It is telling that ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ in Arabic are the same word.
I was not unique in my affection for the place: Our Peace Corps cohort had the highest number of volunteers to marry Tunisians, many of whom are still living there and none of whom divorced.
My third year I woke from my Avatar trance and went off to the capital to help Tunis Air transform to English, working with a fabulous team. I lived in a house on the beach in the beautiful jasmine-scented northern suburb of Salaambo, next to Carthage. I would take the little wooden train across Tunis bay, flamingos arising in front of the volcano Bou Kornine. In the evening, Tunisian men would wear small bouquets of jasmine tucked behind the ear – they were sold on street corners – giving a delightful scent to evening walks [Hence the Jasmine Revolution - although Tunisians prefer “the Tunisian Revolution”].
In those days Bourguiba was still president, but failing. He had been a phenomenal leader, an Attaturk of North Africa. A hero of independence from the French, he transformed Tunisia, investing in education and emancipating women. He had forbidden polygamy by explaining that the Quran says a man may have four wives only if he can treat them equally, in all ways (it says that). He challenged any man who was as perfect as the prophet Muhammad, and able to treat four women equally, to come before him. Polygamy was gone by the time I lived there and there were as many girls in the schools as boys.
By the time I left Tunisia, Bourguiba was literally drooping from a stroke. I recall watching Tunisian friends with tears streaming down their faces during one of his speeches. Soon after I left, Ben Ali staged a coup d’etat ‘for medical reasons’ and took over. I recall thinking, ‘this is Tunisia. Democracy is sure to follow.’
But Ben Ali turned out to be a Ferdinand Marcos, with a greedy nouveau riche wife to boot. Over thirty years after overturning Bourguiba, he was still raiding the kitty, under no pressure from France or the US since he was “pro-Western” – meaning liberal economically and uncomplaining on Israel.
On the economically liberal front, I have been an agent, and a believer, in economic liberalism for years, what with my work fixing banks and financial systems. But I have also come to believe that the greatest risk of globalism is that, in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt (and increasingly the US) where the political means do not exist to spread the wealth, global capitalism can make a small group exceedingly rich while the rest, especially the less educated, are left behind. Tunisia at least is relatively middle class, with few billionaires outside the ruling family and a generally educated population. Educated also means more secular – the two are closely aligned – and Tunisia is exceedingly unlikely to become a theocracy.
In fact, I was delighted to learn yesterday that my old friend and Peace Corps roommate, Jaloul, has been appointed finance minister. I recently saw Jaloul and his wife Cynthia (our Peace Corps nurse!) in Morocco, where he had lived as a banker for many years – he and I both ended up joining Citibank after the Peace Corps. His appointment speaks volumes for the positive direction Tunisia is likely to go.
And my dear friend Jerry Sorkin – a Jewish Philadelphian who is a great advocate for Arab-Jewish relations – is in Tunisia assuring everyone that his amazing tours are in session. See Jerry’s article in the National Review:
If you ever want to go to Tunisia, Malta (where I also studied that junior year), Libya (yep), or Turkey, Jerry is the Man. Here is his web site: http://tunisusa.com/.
I am very proud that my beloved Tunisia was the spark for the paroxysms of change that are sweeping the Arab world. Having started in Tunisia, the spark so far seems to have a liberal, secular streak, driven by the young who simply want a better, freer life.
Stuart and I lived in Cairo for two years, when I worked with Citibank. Cairo was a teeming, impossible city. Years of wars with Israel and poor management had impoverished the place and Cairo, a queen of cities in the first half of the 20th century, was falling apart. ‘Nothing works, everything is difficult’ was our mantra. If the elevator showed up or the telephone functioned, you felt a sense of grace.
And yet we had an amazing experience, living in the ruins. Citibank put us up in a spectacular two-story penthouse apartment overlooking the Nile in Garden City, near Tahrir Square and a block from the office (ah, the corporate life, so not Peace Corps). The apartment belonged to a famous Egyptian movie actress, Nadia Lotfy. Well, she didn’t actually own it but given Cairo’s insane Nasserist rent control laws, we (or Citibank) paid her an exorbitant rent and she paid the actual building owner a few guineas a month. And so, of course, nothing worked. But it sure was classy, in a 1960’s Egyptian movie sort of way.
In Cairo we knew religious scholars at Al-Azhar, Egyptologists at the Cairo Museum, movie people, and, of course, bankers. Our neighbor Farouk, a scion of a well-known Christian political family, became a dear friend. I recently saw him and his wife – who is Jewish – in Cairo, where they have an amazing house and gardens up in Muqattam, the hills to the east of the city. I also caught up with Farouk’s sister Mona. Mona was in the Egyptian parliament for some time when it was more representative. Here is an interview that Mona gave to NPR after 9/11 gives some sense of the growing disillusionment with the US:
Egypt is not Tunisia and I am far more worried about its future. The population is huge – more than half of all Arabs are Egyptian – and largely poor and uneducated. Mubarak obliterated any opposition so there is no natural leader to take the reins.
I have been back to Egypt several times since we left, including last year, and have been struck by how little reform and development have taken hold, despite the billions the US has poured in. Egypt is, after Israel, the largest recipient of American aid. This is essentially a wily bribe that Sadat won in exchange for making peace with Israel. He knew that Israel got the lion’s share of US foreign aid (about a third, more than all of Africa and Latin America combined) so if Egypt’s formula were half of Israel’s, they’d be in clover.
Of course, most has been in military aid, and Egyptians in Tahrir Square have pointed out how many of the weapons used against them are stamped Made in USA. On recent trips I felt Egypt was becoming like Pakistan (also a US client): A highly militarized state that is unwilling to make change and bleats at the Americans about Islamic terrorists to justify oppression, thereby in fact generating terrorists.
The 9/11 planes had no Iraqis on them – contrary to what the majority of Americans were led to believe before the Iraq invasion – but the two best-represented nations were…. our allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt! Perhaps if Egypt had had a democracy back in 1990, with religious Muslims given a fair voice, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qa’ida mastermind, and Muhammad Al-Atta, who flew into the North Tower, might instead have been shouting their views in an opposition party.
It is very likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a fair share of the new government in Egypt if it is indeed democratic. I of all people am not fond of conservative religious parties (yo Huckabee!) but I sure do think that they have a right to exist, if voters vote for them. Certainly the US has no problem with Shas, the Orthodox party in Israel, having such a powerful voice.
Egypt is no Iran. The Shah was put into place by a CIA coup after Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company (ah yes, oil). The Shah, of humble origins, became the self-styled emperor, trying to convince himself and the world that Iran was now Persia, forgetting centuries of Islamic history and deeply insulting many of his people.
I suppose if Hosny had been explicitly implanted by the Americans and had declared himself Pharaoh, there might have been a comparison. But the history is quite different, and I have not seen any evidence of a religious tone to the demonstrations.
Moreover, Iran is Shi’ah. Shi’ah Islam, given its roots in martyrdom, its emphasis on bloodlines, and its organized spiritual authorities, has a very different political position than Sunni Islam, and Egyptian Muslims are overwhelming Sunni.
Egypt is also not Iraq. Mubarak for all his despotism, was never as bloodthirsty as Saddam Hussein. Moreover, when Saddam’s dictatorship was shattered by the American invasion, nothing was put in place to prevent chaos, and the Iraqis descended into tribal sects in self protection.
Egypt is not about to descend into chaos, especially after tonight’s events. And Egypt is far more homogeneous than Iraq with a much stronger national identity. By far the largest Egyptian minority is the Copts, the ancient Christians. There is a rumor that the recent bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria was in fact done by Mubarak’s government to frighten the Christians to rally around him. Regardless of the rumor’s veracity, I was moved to hear of Muslims surrounding Christian sites to show their support.
I was similarly brought to tears to see the hundreds of young Egyptians linking arms to guard the National Museum in Cairo, after some minor looting, to protect their heritage until the army could take position. This is not Iraq.
On the American news you hear much worry about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, reading comments attached to NY Times articles, concern about Israel seems to dominate American discourse. This from the NY Times:
“The Israelis are saying, après Mubarak, le deluge,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. And that, in turn, Mr. Levy said, “gets to the core of what is the American interest in this. It’s Israel. It’s not worry about whether the Egyptians are going to close down the Suez Canal, or even the narrower terror issue. It really can be distilled down to one thing, and that’s Israel.”
First of all, this tendency of Americans – more than any other people – to see everything in the Arab world through the lens of whether it is good for Israel is the main reason Arabs feel so insulted by American foreign policy. Dignity, again.
Still, I can’t imagine that any Egyptian government would be stupid enough to start a war with Israel. How could they? Israel, thanks to American aid, has more military power than the entire Arab world combined. Besides, most Egyptians may not like the Israeli government but do accept the state of Israel (as do most Arabs). Recall that the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan – virtually ignored by the US media – was signed by the entire Arab League, including Libya and Syria. The plan recognizes Israel’s existence within the 1967 borders, the very same borders that the US recognizes. So it is very hard to talk about Arab intransigence in this century.
I am sure that relations with Israel will cool, since a democratic Egypt would represent its people, who do not exactly feel warmly toward the current Israeli regime. I sure don’t blame them, given the apparent lack of Israeli interest in making peace with the Palestinians. I have always been astounded when I hear Americans or Israelis say that they can’t negotiate with the Arabs, while at the same time yet another settlement in the West Bank is built. As the recent Wikileaks papers revealed, the Palestinians have in fact made enormous concessions to the Israelis, to the point of risking humiliation (they, too, know that time is not on their side).
My fear is that Israel has grown too comfortable: The awful separation wall keeps the Palestinians out of sight and out of mind, where the Americans have proven unable to use the influence of their gargantuan foreign aid to rein in the settlements.
In the short term, I am not optimistic for flowers and good will emanating between Israel and the post-Mubarak Arab world. The Israelis have gotten comfortable with their southern border quiescent thanks to Egypt’s unwillingness to upset the Americans. Not surprisingly, they will be frightened that changes in Egypt will remove a pliable partner. Fear will mean retreat into the bunker mentality that the Israelis know so well. Moreover a democratic Egypt will not exactly be France. Egypt is poor, superstitious, and religious. Just as the good folks of Mississippi elect congressmen who want to ban shari’ah and the teaching of evolution, the voters of fellahin Egypt would surely put some doozies in power.
But we can’t keep talking the talk about democracy – and snidely proclaiming Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East” – while preventing Arabs from electing their own leaders because we don’t like those they might elect. The French and Americans blatantly green lighted the coup in Algeria after that country’s people elected an Islamic government. We were all for the Palestinians having elections until, whoops, they elected Hamas. Now we have Hizbullah taking the reins in Lebanon.
From Helene Cooper of the NY Times:
The chaos unfolding in Egypt is laying bare a stark fact, Middle East experts say: In the Arab world, American words may not matter, because American deeds, whatever the words, have been pretty consistent. Ever since that March morning 31 years ago, when Anwar el-Sadat reached out to clasp hands with Menachem Begin on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, the United States government has viewed the Egyptian government, no matter how flawed or undemocratic, as America’s closest ally in the Arab world.
In the longer run, the change in Egypt could be good news for the Israelis. After a year or two, if Egypt settles into relative normalcy and democracy and the Israelis realize that the end is not nigh, Egypt could re-emerge as the Arab leader it has always been. In recent years, Egypt has been seen as so toothless as to be ineffectual, with most peace initiatives in fact emanating from Turkey or the GCC. American patience with Israel will undoubtedly fray, with American Jews increasingly moving towards progressive groups like J Street, while Americans on both sides of the political spectrum wonder what the enormous aid to Israel is buying them. I was struck that Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican, dared to propose eliminating aid to Israel and is still standing. This could lead Israel to feeling cornered, which would never be good for peace. Or, on the contrary, if the big boys Egypt and Turkey act like grown-ups, Israel might feel inclined to join the neighborhood, with peace with the Palestinians the entry fee.
Turkey in fact is a powerful model. The Turkish military has allowed democracy to flourish, including with Islamic parties. Turkey is no political paradise, but it is certainly increasingly a thriving Muslim democracy (and a fabulous place to visit, if you’ve never been). Of course, ever since the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship on its way to Gaza, Israel is not popular there, either. But few Turks are talking about wiping Israel off the map. Eventually Israel will learn that weapons will not secure its future, but strong relations with thriving democracies will.
Saudi Arabia is a whole, much longer story. Of course given the oil fields and Makkah, a revolution in this country would be calamitous for the Americans. But the Saudis are also fairly well bought off and not terribly political, at least overtly. A friend told me he saw a pro-Egypt, pro-democracy demonstration a few days ago at the Ministry of the Interior, near the hotel, but the folks were rounded up in minutes, before the press could witness anything.
The Saudis I’ve spoken with about Egypt fall into two camps; the more working class who are simply happy that the Egyptians are getting rid of a leader they don’t like, and the elite, who view Mubarak’s downfall with concern. A young Saudi from a wealthy family told me that if democracy came to Saudi Arabia, the disenfranchised Bedouin classes would descend on the ruling elite (all from the old settled tribes) ‘like flies on meat.’ King Abdullah raised the salaries of government workers this past week.
I am very hopeful that the events in Tunisia and Egypt will be a watershed in this region, perhaps rivaling 9/11. Democracy may be messy and the worst form of government, as Winston Churchill noted, but democratic nations in the long run make better partners and do better by their people. I care very much about the people in this region and we would all benefit from their success.
One last thing, from over here the best reporting through this all has been Al-Jazeera, in both English and Arabic. They have reporters on the ground and really seem to be listening, rather than talking (hooray Qatar!). It amazes me that the US is still the only country in the western world where Al-Jazeera English cannot broadcast, which speaks volumes, no? During the unfolding events in Egypt, I would occasionally switch away from Al-Jazeerah or BBC (which can also be quite good) to see how the Americans were doing. CNN had great pictures but not much intelligent to say, while Fox was downright pathetic. During the height of demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Fox had a long series on Ronald Reagan’s birthday. Then yesterday, Fox had a truly strange episode where Glenn Beck, noted authority on the Arab world, spent several minutes on camera ranting incoherently about the NY Times. I actually never figured out what the point was, but it was truly strange and made me wonder about my brethren in the US who choose, in droves, to watch such stuff to learn about the world. Yikes! No wonder we are in trouble on the global stage.
I am here in Riyadh till February 16th working with the central bank, back for a week or so in New Orleans with the family, then off to Ramallah and Jerusalem to help the Palestinians draft a strategy for their financial sector, which promises to be exceedingly interesting, and right at the heart of it all. Al-Jazeera was showing ecstatic demonstrations all over the Arab world and I noticed big crowds in Ramallah. Through it all, none of it seemed anti-American or anti-Israeli or anti-anything, but rather pro-Arab. And what could be wrong with that?
More later. Stay well. May peace be upon all of us.
Ken of Araby
Received Feb 11, 2011, reprinted by permission.
Ken Dorph is a Sag Harbor resident.