Columnist Thomas Friedman – whose understanding of the Muslim world involves staying at very expensive hotels and then speaking to the doorman to sense the “Arab street” – writes yet another article that shows how little he gets about the region. Want to speak to people who aren’t just in the elites, Friedman?
When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: “Do you have a corporate rate?” I said, “I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.” There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: “ Can I ask you something?” Sure. “Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.”
I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.
Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, countries fractured by tribal, ethnic and religious divisions, would have been ideal for gradual evolution to democracy, but it is probably too late now. The initial instinct of their leaders was to crush demonstrators, and blood has flowed. In these countries, there are now so many pent-up grievances between religious communities and tribes — some of which richly benefited from their dictatorships while others were brutalized by them — that even if the iron fist of authoritarianism is somehow lifted, civil strife could easily trample democratic hopes.
Could anything prevent this? Yes, extraordinary leadership that insists on burying the past, not being buried by it. The Arab world desperately needs its versions of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk — giants from opposing communities who rise above tribal or Sunni-Shiite hatreds to forge a new social compact. The Arab publics have surprised us in a heroic way. Now we need some Arab leaders to surprise us with bravery and vision. That has been so lacking for so long.
Another option is that an outside power comes in, as America did in Iraq, and as the European Union did in Eastern Europe, to referee or coach a democratic transition between the distrustful communities in these fractured states. But I don’t see anyone signing up for that job.
Absent those alternatives, you get what you got.