The Arab world’s best and brightest

The excitement about the popular protests in the Arab world that was at fever-pitch a few weeks ago has slowly given way to some sobering questions about the chances of meaningful democratic transformations.  
By now it’s quite obvious that Israel’s cautious reaction at the beginning was entirely justified, but at first, Israel’s supposedly insufficient enthusiasm about the anti-Mubarak demonstrations was decried by many. Indeed, if Thomas Friedman is to be believed, some people in the White House were even “thoroughly disgusted” with Israeli concerns about America’s eagerness to please the Egyptian demonstrators by unceremoniously ditching an ally of some 30 years.
As audiences worldwide rooted for the crowds in Cairo that turned out day after day and night after night to demand reforms and freedom, major media networks were quick to send in their star reporters to cover and shape a story that had all the ingredients of a big hit: an ancient country with lots of young people using Facebook and Twitter, an idealistic young Google executive in the spotlight, and lots of soldiers with tanks that provided a looming sense of danger.
But once the demonstrators had reached their main goal of ousting President Mubarak, the international media downgraded their coverage of events in Egypt. The young Google executive who had been portrayed as a “hero” and “symbol” of the revolution was soon enough reduced to just tweeting about the excitement generated in Cairo when the hugely popular Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi returned from exile to celebrate the victory of the protesters in a “sermon.”
Unsurprisingly, Qaradawi also had something to say about Jerusalem: he told his cheering audience that they should pray for the re-conquest of the city so that he could safely lead the prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque.  
In the western liberal media, Qaradawi is often described as a “moderate” or as a “reformer,” which reflects either complete ignorance or the conviction that Muslims should be praised as “moderate” if they regard the Holocaust as a “divine punishment” and hope for a repeat “at the hand of the believers.” Qaradawi has also declared that there will be a preordained “battle […] between the collective body of Muslims and the collective body of Jews i.e. all Muslims and all Jews.”
The suppression or downplaying of this kind of information in the western media means that western audiences will often be unable to understand Israeli concerns. Over time, the image that is thus created paints Israel as plagued by unwarranted fears, intransigence and hostility.
After all, when you are told that the idealistic young Google executive represents everything Egyptians are hoping for, it is only natural to cheer the Egyptian demonstrators and feel “thoroughly disgusted” by anyone who seems reluctant to join the ranks of the revelers.
But as much as Israelis might want to join the optimists who believe that the Arab world’s best and brightest have begun to shape a better future for the region, most Israelis know their neighborhood too well to hope that tolerance, democratic pluralism and liberal attitudes will easily prevail.
One of the most informative articles in this context is a blog post by Barry Rubin, who mocks the image created in much of the western media by asking: “Is Egypt A Nation of Hip Facebook-Adept Youth?”
While the answer is obviously no, Rubin also illustrates that enthusiasm for Facebook and admiration for some western icons doesn’t necessarily equal support for the basic principles of democracy. As Rubin writes:
By total coincidence, a young Egyptian just asked to join my Facebook. His profile includes pictures of scantily dressed Western singers. And he lists his political heroes as: Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood hanged by Nasser, Edward Said, Malcolm X, and the Iranian Islamist theorist Ali Shariati. Oh yes, and he also likes Christiane Amanpour.
What’s really interesting is his philosophical statement, which a Western observer might easily misunderstand. The basic message is this: Egyptian patriotism is out, Arab nationalism is out (“ethnocentrism and chauvinism”), the only thing important is Islamic identity and having an Islamist state.”
Another revealing glimpse of how the Arab world’s best and brightest think can be found in an article that describes “Scenes from an Arab Classroom.” The author, James Traub, recounts some of his experiences from teaching a class on U.S. foreign policy to a group of Emirati college students in Abu Dhabi.
Written one year ago, the article makes for fascinating reading given the recent upheaval in the region. At least back then, Traub’s students appreciated their comfortable lives so much that they felt “democracy promoters shouldn’t target the Emirates.”
Traub notes humbly that it “was an education for me to understand what the world looked like to my students.” But it seems that at least on one issue, he knew all along how his students felt:
I put off Israel-Palestine as long as I could, and then we had a 45-minute everyone-against-me debate. They all agreed that the founding of Israel had been a calamity for the Middle East. But was the very idea of a Jewish state in the historic Jewish homeland unjust? Yes. The Jews could have gone to the United States. Anyway, it was the Jews’ fault that they no longer had a place to live. Their fault? Amina said that that the Jews had gotten kicked out of European countries because they engaged in bad business practices. Really? Where had she heard that? On a documentary she had seen, probably on Al Jazeera.”
Traub doesn’t mention whether he brought up the fact that Jews also “had gotten kicked out” of Arab countries – but in all likelihood, his students would have blamed the Jews also for this.
Rather unsurprisingly, Traub found that his students “were no more convinced about the September 11 attacks than they were about the Holocaust.”
Yet, Traub describes his students as “a sweet, generous, earnest bunch”, but he also concedes in conclusion:
Preconceptions are powerful, but they are not immutable. Which is the more potent fact? The former, says the pessimist, but the optimist thinks otherwise. (What am I? As a teacher, an optimist; as a journalist, a pessimist.)”
Unfortunately, there is plenty of reason for pessimism – to point to just one of many examples, check out the clip or the transcript of an Egyptian children’s TV program that taught Egyptian children a few months ago about the need to “Liberate Jerusalem from the Hands of ‘the Disgusting Jews’.”