Tuesday, February 15, 2011

‘Influencing each other’: Arab Democracy and America

Jade Salhab* 

 While the risings in Tunisia and Egypt unequivocally showed the universal appeal of democracy, they also showed the fragility of the ‘democratic grasp’ among many Americans and Arabs. By ‘democratic grasp’ I mean the profound understanding that any group of people - popular or elitist, spontaneous or organized - can harbor a genuine diversity of views on any given issue. Despite the generalized belief in the merits of democratic governance, ‘democratic grasp’ was often forgotten when analyzing the latest social and political events. We can do better, if we’re really aiming for true democratic practice in both worlds. We can do better, if we’re really hoping to inaugurate a new era of respectful relations between both worlds.

As protesters poured into Tahrir Square, pundits and amateurs alike were pouring their thoughts into the public sphere expressing sincere admiration for the ‘Egyptian people’ and the ‘spirit of democracy’ they embodied.

But as we look back - now that we‘re trying to learn from these events– one thought comes to mind: throughout the turbulent process, Arabs and Americans analyzed each others’ moves using incredibly counterproductive and misleading simplifications.

Let’s start with some common misreadings in the United States.

The better known one is the Conservatives’ fear that Mubarak’s autocratic regime would be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood theocratic regime. But the more interesting one is found among Liberals who, understating any influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, admire the ‘revolution of Wael-Ghonim’s young and inspired Internet generation’. The protests, they assert, were led by this emerging, free-minded youth that has awoken and is about to sweep the Arab world out of the yoke of darkness.

In fact, not only were both of these groups equally active actors in the Egyptian rising, but they were also two among many. Heaps of protesters were simple workers, yearning for a better life, better salaries, and lower prices. Many were also from a previous generation, alienated by the excessive submissiveness of Mubarak to the American-Israeli geopolitical interests. Any Arab individual would be able to describe how diverse the crowd was and how this ‘Egyptian people’ was, in fact, composed of Muslim conservatives, young liberals, workers and union-organizers, leftist intellectuals, nationalist Nasserites and many more. In contrast, few in the US lent themselves to such a nuanced reading of the movement, and fewer even are ready to put-up with the diverse -and possibly inconsistent - perspectives and aspirations that will very shortly start emerging from it.

Here’s why this is important: if Americans are unable to truly think democratically and accept this diversity, they will also be unable to effectively support democracy in Egypt, consequently deepening the rift between America and the Arab world.

But let’s also take a moment to look at how much democratic grasp we, the Arabs, have shown in our interpretation of ‘America’ and its response to the protests.

Many Arabs started criticizing ‘America’ from the moment the protests broke out. For some, Obama was not doing what he could to support the rise of democracy in Egypt; for others he was acting hypocritically: supporting the crowds and abandoning the 30-years-long loyal dictator only because he had no other choice. For Hassan Nasrallah it was even doing both things at the same time - go figure.

Ironically, one argument was recurrently used by all critics alike: the contradictory messaging of the Obama administration throughout these 18 days. The argument goes like this: “Americans say one thing and then its opposite: They are either trying to bet on both horses, or trying to hide their true agenda”.

Here’s my question: how can we Arabs be nuanced enough to understand the complexities of the Egyptian dynamics - or ultra-complex Lebanese dynamics for that matter- and yet fail to understand that ‘America’ is not one single block?

An article on Sunday in the New York Times plainly exposes how divided the American administration really was: rather than being the monolithic, all-conspiring, all-powerful, synchronized, hegemonic and satanic machine that your average Arab taxi driver is always eager to blame for the world’s misfortune, ‘America’, it turns out, was truly debating its way to a new era of relations with the Arab world.

The article shows how the White House staff - composed of a younger and more progressive team - was genuinely inclined to back the protests and honor Obama’s Cairo speech, while the State Department - composed of overly prudent, institutional realpolitik bureaucrats that are as nimble and dynamic in their minds as a tanker ship – where trying to save the furniture of the Titanic.

One tempting conclusion from the article is that the mixed messaging was simply a failure on behalf of the White House to tame the State Department and keep its diplomats on message (the message being: “the orderly transition to democracy needs to start now, and now means yesterday”). But a deeper conclusion would be that between those who want change and those who fear it, those focused on principles and those on interests, a genuine internal debate is raging in America, and this White House is struggling to strike a reasonable balance.

The general point I’m trying to make is that peoples, organizations, and even administrations in free societies - as well as not so free ones - are diverse, incoherent, inconsistent, and dynamic. Acknowledging this fact is of the essence, if we are to build a democratic society - or pretend to be one, in the case of the USA. Acknowledging this fact is of the essence as well, if we are to find common grounds that will encourage ‘America’ to develop a more nuanced and reasonable foreign policy towards our region.

It is time for Arabs to understand that the American Administration is not a cohesive hegemonic imperialist machine, as much as it is time for Americans to understand that Arabs are not a lump of sheep-minded followers of retrograde imams. Only then can we start ‘influencing each other’ as Bashar el Assad - of all people - has eloquently put it in his recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. Only then can we consolidate truly democratic behavior within and between our respective worlds.

*Jade Salhab is a Lebanese architect and urban planner, born in Beirut in 1976. He graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1999. He  went on to complete a Masters in Urban Environment and Sustainable Development as well as  post-graduate studies in Urban Planning at the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. Between 2002 to 2010 he lived and worked in Brussels where he established a succesful private consultancy firm. He is currently based at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government completing a Masters in Public Administration.


Unknown said...

Dear jad,
I am inclined to disagree with your reading of the US administration's position as being a product of conflicting policies between WH and State both reaching out to the public and giving mixed messages.
I believe that the US was surprised with the uprising and its genuine diversity and clear slogans to the extent of being "cornered". The regime is their ally and a necessity in their scheme in the region. Changing Mubarak should be done their way and according to their agenda. The uprising messed it all up but they had no choice at the first few days but to support, ESP that the movement was still strong and the blunders of the regime were massive.
BUT, when Mubarak regained initiative in the second week and came out of the shock and started the dialogue with the opposition, the Americans were relieved and went dormant! They thought he could make it!
And when the masses insisted on staying in the midane and refused dialogue and exposed the bluff, and mubarak could not follow up with them, the Americans dumped him again to keep face and build trust with the people.
I believe the American admin was fixed to the tv screens between their press releases and releasing accordingly…
Miss you
Rami Abou Alfa

jade said...

Thanks Rami :)
miss you too man...

I know that most people agree with you. And i see where they're coming from, of course (i am often there myself).

But i must admit to you that being where i am right now gives me a totally different perspective:
you regularly meet, in person, the policymakers that you are talking about. Not only do you have the total freedom to raise any criticism or question with them (all off-the-record), but they also are yearning to hear your critical voice because they are becoming increasingly aware of their goofiness in the region.

Take a minute to sincerely (really) try to imagine those two following scenarios.

Imagine for a second Obama and his advisors sitting in that room and discussing what to do.

Scenario 1 they are saying:
'you know what, i don't want those egyptians to have their freedom, i don't trust the result. I don't think they are capable of handling it anyway, and besides, watch my words, we're going to end up in serious trouble with Israel and saudi arabia and it's going to be a whole mess. Is there a way we can keep that old dictator in place while we find a younger one"?

or, conversely, scenario 2:
"Man did you see that! people no matter where, no matter how, find their way to freedom. it's impressive, isn't it? but it's also scary, let's get to work. i mean, we don't know who will arise form this mess. how can we help those guys achieve their damn long deserved freedom but without this thing turning into another middle eastern catastrophe with terror and Qassams falling all over Israeli roofs? can we do this? is there a way through which those guys can achieve their freedom without necessarily sinking the whole area in chaos?"

I think it's the second scenario.
Because i believe that people prefer to do good things whenever they can.
And if you are in that room at the end of that last question, and you know how to give an answer that does not include "imperialist hegemonist" and that does not last for more than 5 minutes, you can actually give them the answer that they need.

My point, simply, is that your opinion is heavily affected by distrust (justified distrust, granted) and disbelief in any genuine good intent.
But the facts themselves don't 'prove' one interpretation or the other. if you give the benefit of the doubt to Obama & co, than you read their actions differently. if you don't, than you read it like you did.

It's subjective. and that's fine.
but it's definitely not productive. it won't make anything better (maybe more 'bitter', but definitely not better).
I want to see things change. and i think they can.
But for that one has to first give people the benefit of the doubt. And guess what: when i did, i was always amazed by how much influence i could have on their way of thinking...

you should try it!

take care,
and stay in touch,

Unknown said...

You are giving them more than they deserve! Look at them now in the case of Libya , they are adopting which scenario? They haven't even mentioned the word democracy in their press releases, only worries on violence. Pathetic! Wait till the people say their word in the streets and watch your friends in the oval office sprinting to catch up. It is all about state interests (oil in this case) and they don't give a sh-- about values. They are selling us words and you are urging us to Consume. Am happy for you being this close to these policy makers but hold your grips a little....

Anonymous said...

Way more than they deserve Jad, and way more than any other foreign government deserve.

In your 2 very naive scenarios, you make it sound as if "people's freedom" is of paramount importance to the US administration... is that the case?
Think Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain...

I think it is rather their own agenda in the region...

Kamal Sanjakdar

Arab Democracy said...

I cant express my delight at seeing Kamal and Rami comment on AD. First time ever. So we should ask you to write more often Jade.

I am nost sure whether it is you or your perspective that brings on the debate.

I tend to agree with their opinion on this matter.

This is not really about intentions or ideals, although these guys might be well intentioned. This is about realpolitik. And if anything the Obama administration is less idealistic than the Neo-cons that preceded them. (They had a vision..it was the wrong one but still a vision.)

On the other hand, Obama has shown an inability to lift the veil of hypocrisy that has characterised the US relationship with these regimes.

The US is interested in 3 parameters in the region: Energy security (Oil), Israel's security and its own security (Terrorism).

And I can almost guarantee that they will put every effort to keep the stability in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya....at the expense of democracy.