By Andrew Hammond
CAIRO | Wed Feb 16, 2011 8:42am EST
(Reuters) – Arab uprisings against unpopular Western-backed rulers have undercut the arguments of some Western intellectuals about passive populations who are not prepared to fight for democracy.
During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, neoconservative cheerleaders for war who had direct access to Western policymakers said force was the only way to take down Arab dictators. A minority of Arab intellectuals agreed with them.
Many writers, especially in the United States, suggested there were characteristics peculiar to the region that could explain why Arabs had not been touched by the democratic wave that toppled East European regimes two decades ago.
Often they cited Islam, or implied there was something wrong in the Arab psyche. Those who suggested more of a focus on U.S. policies and backing for unpopular regimes have had less access to mainstream media and policy makers.
Bernard Lewis, one of the intellectual giants of this trend, wrote in 2005 that “creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy,” as if “creating” democracy required American tutelage.
The uprisings that removed Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak four weeks later have shown the people are capable of doing it themselves, even when up against huge odds.
Scholars and opposition figures, who all opposed the Iraq war, said the uprisings, which have so far sparked street action in Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Iran, also exposed the ulterior motives behind U.S. backing for police states.
“The West must change its mistaken belief that we are not fit for democracy and freedom. Now is the time for Western powers to recognize the desires of the Arab people and to remove their support of their despotic allies,” said Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident based in Washington.
“Tunisians and Egyptians have proven Western powers and analysts wrong about the Arabs desire for freedom,” he said.
Western countries long saw rulers such as Mubarak and Ben Ali as strongmen able to deliver on Western foreign policy needs while cracking down on convenient Islamist threats such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia.
Israel has reacted with great alarm to the fall of a trusted ally like Mubarak. He spent much time in his final days in office on the phone to U.S. and Israeli officials who fear the rise of popular forces, Islamist or secular, in a democratic Egypt would take a different line on regional issues.
Egypt under Mubarak never veered from the script of a 1979 peace treaty with Israel engineered by his predecessor Anwar Sadat and backed by military top brass despite popular anger.
He imposed a blockade of the Gaza Strip, drawing the opprobrium of many ordinary Arabs, because like Israel and the United States he did not like Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and its links to Egypt’s own Islamist trend.
“The explosion of Arab popular anger everywhere flies against U.S. policy interests,” said As’ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese politics professor in the United States. “In other words, the U.S. needed to believe that Arabs are fatalistic and quiescent … to rationalize the American embrace of most Arab tyrannies.”
Turfing out unpopular rulers was no small feat. It required a mass movement to cross a barrier of fear created by an elaborate network of often ruthless security agencies developed under a system like that of Mubarak, who played up the Islamist threat to ensure U.S. support for his rule.
“People in the West don’t realize how brutal the regimes we have in the Arab world are,” said Muhammad al-Zekri, a Bahraini anthropologist.
While the uprisings took policy makers by surprise, they were in fact several years in the making.
In Egypt Kefaya, or Enough, movement began mobilizing Egyptians in 2005 against the prospect of a future presidential bid by Mubarak’s son Gamal, a leading light in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. In 2008, labor strikes broke out in north Egypt and became more frequent since then.
Activists spoke on state television about how they studied police tactics in controlling street protests in the past in order to outfox them when the revolt erupted on January 25. Within four days the police had lost control and the army was sent in.
When Tunisians brought down Ben Ali, it was the spark that lit a fire waiting to happen in Egypt.
None of this was the work of populations prepared to acquiesce in injustice.
Mounir Khelifa, a Tunisian literature professor who advised the education ministry, says the uprisings were made possible by the emergence of a generation who grew up during the information technology revolution and were not prepared to accept government arguments any more on why full rights should be put in abeyance.
Both the Internet and Arab satellite television undercut the propaganda of state media, encouraged people develop a consensus on their rights as citizens and facilitated mobilization.
Like their Western allies, Egypt and Tunisia underestimated their own people and thought the old means of control — media, police, ruling party — would continue to stifle them.
“There was obliviousness to a broad class of young educated people out there who were accessing information from all over the world,” Khelifa said. “Even the school curriculums talked about a lot of things that Ben Ali was not providing, such as freedom of opinion and fair elections,” he said.
In Egypt, 40 percent of the population of over 80 million are under 30, disconnected from the mindset of an 82-year-old former air pilot who in his final speeches repeatedly referred to himself as their father.