How is America viewed in the Arab world, especially Egypt? Ancient, reactionary, dictator-loving, Zionist obsessed and increasingly incapable of influencing events. This is a wonderful thing, as Washington’s main contribution to the Middle East in the last sixty years has been backing brutes and supporting Israeli occupation.
In days gone by, it was pretty much guaranteed that any demonstration in the Arab world would feature burning American flags and a blazing effigy or two of the U.S. president.
At the pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, references to the United States have been conspicuously absent, a sign of what some analysts are already calling a “post-American Middle East” of diminished U.S. influence and far greater uncertainty about America’s role.
For just as burning flags are not part of the current repertoire, neither are demonstrators carrying around models of the Statue of Liberty, as Chinese activists brought to Tiananmen Square in 1989. Middle East activists say they avoid references to the United States as a political role model for fear of alienating potential supporters, said Toujan Faisal, a veteran democracy campaigner in Jordan who has been advising young protesters in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
“I don’t think America appeals to the younger generation,” she said. “I’m cautious not to present them with the American example because there’s a negative attitude to America, a disappointment.”
No one yet knows what kind of Middle East will emerge from Cairo’s embattled streets: a newly democratic one, an increasingly radicalized one, or perhaps one in which authoritarian regimes tighten their grip. Events in Cairo are unfolding too rapidly to predict, but one possible outcome could be a more visibly anti-American drift.
Still, it is notable that even the most rabid protests against President Hosni Mubarak have focused on his reign, rather than on the American role in enabling it.
Reform of a particular sort could actually bolster U.S. interests if it allows more open commerce and development of a strong middle class in societies often split today between a connected rich and a dispossessed poor.
Yet America’s role could also be greatly diminished in an area that remains vital to its national interests, but where the perception has grown of a superpower with few friends beyond Israel and a coterie of authoritarian Arab rulers.
The Obama administration’s initial, tepid response to the crisis, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling Mubarak’s regime “stable” and Vice President Biden declaring that he didn’t regard Mubarak as a dictator, did little to endear Washington to a region that has long yearned for political reform.
President Obama has since adopted a tougher stance, but his language has not gone far enough to convince Arabs puzzled by America’s seeming inability to embrace a revolt that they think coincides with America’s own ideals, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
“No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we’re losing the Arab world.”
On a grander scale, and this is coming from an Israeli in Haaretz, Washington and its allies (including Australia) must have known this day would come, when the ability to simply bribe allies to bend to their will would come to an end. And it’s a glorious thing to watch, contemplating what a new kind of independence may mean for Arabs:
Two huge processes are happening right before our eyes. One is the Arab liberation revolution. After half a century during which tyrants have ruled the Arab world, their control is weakening. After 40 years of decaying stability, the rot is eating into the stability. The Arab masses will no longer accept what they used to accept. The Arab elites will no longer remain silent.
Processes that have been roiling beneath the surface for about a decade are suddenly bursting out in an intifada of freedom. Modernization, globalization, telecommunications and Islamization have created a critical mass that cannot be stopped. The example of democratic Iraq is awakening others, and Al Jazeera’s subversive broadcasts are fanning the flames. And so the Tunisian bastille fell, the Cairo bastille is falling and other Arab bastilles will fall.
The Arab liberation revolution will fundamentally change the Middle East. The acceleration of the West’s decline will change the world. One outcome will be a surge toward China, Russia and regional powers like Brazil, Turkey and Iran. Another will be a series of international flare-ups stemming from the West’s lost deterrence. But the overall outcome will be the collapse of North Atlantic political hegemony not in decades, but in years. When the United States and Europe bury Mubarak now, they are also burying the powers they once were. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the age of Western hegemony is fading away.