Tanks had rolled into Alexandria and Cairo, and the day’s death toll had crossed two dozen when president Hosni Mubarak, taking a phone call from within his teetering throne hours after sacking his entire cabinet, now heard Barack Obama’s confident voice:
“Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people,” preached the American president, “and suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”
Delivered seven years ago next week, this sermon encapsulated the naiveté, ignorance, arrogance and recklessness with which Obama handled what he, and many others in the West, mistook for “the Arab Spring.”
Obama really thought the lava erupting from Egypt’s bowels was democracy’s call, and that what Mubarak should do in its face is talk.
Seven years on, though the Arab Upheaval’s inferno is still raging, several conclusions must be drawn already now.
The first is that the Arab world is politically ill.
THE VIOLENT downfalls of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the gruesome civil wars that erupted in Libya, Syria and Yemen not long after others in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq, all underscore the Arab elites’ failure to craft an Arab future on the debris of the Ottoman past.
Arab statesmen, politicians, tycoons, clergy, academics and literati had for this task a full century, as well as billions of petrodollars and enthusiastic foreign backing.
They squandered them all. The Arab elites never got down to the business of empowering the masses.
They treated social mobility as a menace and stifled it by cultivating dynasty, tribe and bribe.
The second conclusion is that the outer world can’t afford ignoring what happens inside the Arab world.
Arab leaders’ failure to look after their peoples’ needs not only spawned ignorance, poverty and bloodshed, but also fueled the fundamentalists who killed thousands of non-Arabs and unleashed the migratory pressures that have radicalized European voters, severed Britain from the European Union and driven a wedge between the EU’s liberal leadership and nationalist periphery.
Thirdly, the Arab masses must get prosperity and enlightenment before they get democracy.
The Western assumptions since the downfall of the Berlin Wall – that democracy’s victory is predestined and also imminent – have unfortunately proven unfounded.
Democracy’s march has been halted between Russia, China and Turkey, and its resumption will not happen between Damascus, Cairo and Riyadh. The Facebook protesters who blinded Obama vanished because their message meant little to undereducated villagers enamored by Islamist demagoguery.
To change, the Arab world must first be carpeted with schools like Singapore’s, vocational centers like India’s, and factories like China’s.
Only then, with millions gainfully employed, will it be able to build parliaments like Britain’s.
The fourth and most important conclusion is that the nation-state that the West imposed on the Middle East has failed.
COUNTRIES LIKE Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen emerged in the wake of the Middle East’s encounter with the West following its defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
It now is clear that the consequent straightjacketing of ethnic, religious and tribal antagonists like Iraqi Kurds and Shi’ites, Syrian Alawites and Sunnis, Lebanese Shi’ites and Christians, or Yemeni Houthis and Sunnis has failed.
The urge to attribute this clumsy statecraft to a conspiracy – that Europeans consciously programmed Arab states to be divided from within and ruled from without – is tempting but probably unfounded. The Europeans who misshaped the Middle East were the same ones who created Yugoslavia, a bag full of cats whose aftermath was the same as Syria’s.
Now the question is where opinion-makers and political leaders, both local and foreign, go from here.
Foreign opinion-makers should first concede that the Middle East’s political illness has nothing to with Israel. Arabs torched themselves seven years ago not because of what happened between Israelis and Palestinians, but because of what happened between Arab societies and their leaders.
The delusion that Israel is in any way related to the Arab world’s political illness has to be shed by anyone seeking its cure. Otherwise, the search will be misguided from the outset, and there will be more fratricide in the Middle East, more drownings in the Mediterranean and more angry streets in Europe.
At the same time, Arab historians, authors, poets, playwrights, filmmakers and journalists will have to ask publicly why there is so much intra-Arab bloodshed, and why Arab leaders have failed to educate, employ and enrich the masses the way Turkey’s, China’s, and India’s leaders did.
Only such public soul-searching will produce formulas for a new Arab mind-set, one that will understand the promise of creation and the destructiveness of the hatreds with which millions of Arabs are awash.
Arab leaders, for their part, will have to produce formulas for workable states.
The saddest political aspect of the bloodbaths in Syria, Yemen and Libya is that the Arab League has had nothing insightful to say about them. Someday, some such Arab forum will reconstitute Arab states and the borders between them so they reflect millions of Arabs’ preference of tribe over state.
Foreigners will not be able to play a role in this re-navigation.
Yes, non-Arabs can help reinvent Arab economies. Any foreign- funded hospital, highway, library, shoe factory, canned-food plant or Lego-brick production line’s emergence between Basra and Fez will help the arrival of the real Arab Spring.
However, the Arab political tragedy will not be solved by any foreigner.
It’s an Arab problem that begs an Arab solution.
“Who are you to tell us how to run our countries?” asked a scornful Mubarak while dismissing Shimon Peres’s New Middle East vision, during a conversation with then-prime minister Ehud Barak.
“He told us he stopped reading Peres’s book on page 2, where it said it was printed in Jerusalem,” recalled recently former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel.
Mubarak knew that Barak loathed Peres, and so said what his guest would appreciate, but he didn’t know that the people would ultimately depose and jail him.
One wonders whether the 90-year-old Mubarak now realizes that had he followed Peres’s advice back in 1993, to jointly modernize the Middle Eastern economy, the Arab Spring would have long been here, and Mubarak would have been its hero.