CAIRO – The absolute majority of world opinion is now against a war in Iraq. Mass anti-war demonstrations in Western and Arab capitals are bound to increase. There seems to be no smoking or non-smoking gun about to be produced by UN inspectors inside Iraq. Political careers in the Western and Arab worlds inevitably will be broken on the basis of key decisions to be made in the next few crucial weeks.
In the backstages of the Arab world, many keep urging the lost-in-space leaders of the other 21 members of the Arab League (apart from Iraq) to immediately convene an emergency session and then personally deliver the message to Saddam Hussein: he has to go and so spare the long-suffering Iraqi population a new apocalypse.
Still, everyone knows that Saddam will never take the sad, long and winding road already chosen by the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos and Idi Amin. Rumors disseminated by American allies still persist: Saddam has been sending fortunes to self-styled African leader of the future, Muammar Gaddafi; but a Libyan exile would never fit Saddam’s control-freak personality, considering the extreme volatility of Gaddafi’s alliances.
The Arab street – and also souq, mall and ahwa (coffeehouse) – perspective is that the so-called war against terrorism is nothing but a war to impose US imperial power. Arab US allies like Egypt and Jordan are caught in a swamp of impotence – something very visible in constant remarks by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he says that the US can launch a war any time they want and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop them. Mubarak may keep denying there is no joint Saudi-Turkish-Egyptian initiative desperately trying to find a solution other than war. But the joint initiative de facto exists, even though these governments are well aware of their extremely limited capacity to influence events that will terribly affect their whole future.
Cairo is taking for granted that Ariel Sharon will win the Israeli elections. It’s not an after-effect of too much sheesha (water pipe) smoking, but everyone’s deepest fear is that Sharon will profit from the smokescreen of a war in Iraq to further drive the Palestinians away from the West Bank and Gaza and into Jordan. Israelis call the probable mass expulsion “transfer” – a surgical way to dramatically alter the demography of the occupied territories and so annex them into so-called Eretz Israel. The “transfer” will certainly be enforced with American-made hardware: Israel has asked Washington for US$14 billion in additional loan guarantees and military aid – and no one is betting it won’t get the total package.
Officially, Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah in Jordan and Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia know and say whenever they have the chance that the resolution of the Palestinian tragedy is the only way out to dissipate the extreme anger of their populations – and consequently deal a death blow to the appeal of al-Qaeda’s radical, confrontational strategy. Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah are visibly, actively involved in trying to find a peaceful solution for Iraq, but the role of King Abdullah in Jordan is murkier: the king is a very vocal supporter of the war against terrorism as enunciated by Washington – but he knows very well that his fragile Hashemite kingdom has everything to lose if Israelis and Palestinians are further radicalized. The final destination of the Israeli “transfer” of maybe hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will obviously be Jordan.
In a masterful, sad and angry piece published by Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading newspaper, prominent Palestinian writer and thinker Edward Said compares the “generalized indifference” greeting Washington’s war plans against Iraq to the “strangely ineffective” Washington response to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail. Said links American efforts to redraw the map of the whole Middle East starting from Iraq with the fact that “the United Nations stand by, looking on as its resolutions are flouted on a hourly basis” by Israel. And he draws the inevitable conclusion, also shared by the Arab street: “In this entire panorama of desolation, what catches the eye is the utter passivity and helplessness of the Arab world as a whole.”
When Said writes that “the Arabs individually and collectively can barely muster a bland refusal (at most they say, no, you cannot use military bases in our territory) only to reverse themselves a few days later”, it’s like he’s mimicking not only Mubarak, but also Turkey’s Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and the Saudis, the same Egyptian-Turkish-Saudi alliance which is ultimately trying by all means to maintain the status quo – because they know that they have everything to lose from the imminent cataclysm. Said also echoes widespread Arab feelings when he says that “millions of people will be affected. America contemptuously plans for their future without consultation. Do we deserve such racist derision?”
Arab populations everywhere know that they are basically repressed and in most cases devastatingly misruled. The triumph-of-the-human-spirit part is how they manage to go on surviving in such adverse circumstances – something that can be attested in the ultra-noisy, ultra-polluted streets and slums of Cairo. “Arab street” may be an empty slogan concocted by mediocre Orientalists, but the street knows all about the silence and impotence of their governments, and the deep, terrible ramifications of the impeding “barbarians at the gate” blitzkrieg in the region, as a Cairo political scientist put it.
If one visits these streets, souks, malls and ahwas in teeming Cairo, one inevitably hears how the likely invasion of Iraq is in everyone’s minds inextricably linked with the suffering of the Palestinians, as much as the Bush administration spins and spins to delink both issues. There’s an overall feeling the Israeli elections will not change a thing – even considering the unlikely scenario of a victory by Labor “peace” candidate Amram Mitzna.
Two themes are pervasive everywhere in Cairo: the need for Arab unity, and a belligerent mood borne out of frustration. Fathi, for instance, believes that negotiations with Israel would only be effective “if all Arab countries unite, creating one solid Arab nation led by one ruler.” Muhamad says “it is time for Arab countries to make a collective choice – either to go to war or stick to peaceful resistance by boycotting the Israeli economy.” Said says “the Jews are obsessed by the dream of extending their state from the Nile to the Euphrates. We should back Palestinians tangibly and not literally, which means that we should wage a war on Israelis before they attack us.”
These opinions couldn’t contrast more with Mahmoud’s. Mahmoud, 25, is the typical Westernized Egyptian: LA Lakers jacket, cutting-edge Nikes, glowing cellphone, hedonist dreams, and scheming to immigrate to Australia, even though his family runs a successful Thousand and One Nights Parfum Palace. He is totally apolitical: he only talks about money and brands.
Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, already felt at that time the danger of a Westernization that went beyond political notions. He used to talk a lot about a form of colonialism that was a sort of dispossession of selfhood, of being and of language. He insisted it was paramount for Egyptians to engage in “internal decolonization.” Twenty years after he found the Muslim Brotherhood, at the end of the 1940s, the party of god already had more than 1.5 million members. They demanded independence from the British since the beginning – but at the same time were investing heavily in education. For the Muslim Brotherhood, to educate was to decolonize the minds of Egyptians.
President Nasser – a quintessential nationalist – only kicked out the British in the 1950s. For al-Banna, nationalism was an idea imported from Europe, just like the beautiful early 20th century cafes of downtown Cairo. He thought nationalism was a sort of racism – far away from the universal character of Islam. Nasser flourished as a nationalist, but at the same time repressing the Muslim Brotherhood – and that’s why he became so popular in the West. The British preferred to deal with a nationalist rather than a religious party. There was a time when the Muslim Brotherhood suggested the multi-party system be dissolved – not in favor of the one-party state of Nasser, but in favor of their own “party of god.” This tension between nationalists and Islamists remains very much alive in Egypt today.
Nationalists are frustrated with the impotence and disunity of the Arab world, and dream of a political union. Islamists abhor the West, and dream of a religious union, a new caliphate. Meanwhile, the latest Global Development Network (GDN) annual meeting has just taken place in Cairo. The GDN was a World Bank initiative that became independent. The meeting this year debated globalization: who profits, who suffers from it, who is left behind, how societies are being homogenized. And as far as the Arab world is concerned, the inevitable theme, once again, is impotence.
Three recent reports have put the Arab world under the spotlight. A United Nations Development Program report blamed the region for a deficit of freedom, a deficit of knowledge and a deficit in terms of women’s rights. A World Economic Forum report stressed Arab economies were growing at an annual rate of only 0.5 percent per capita – the second slowest in the world. And an UNCTAD report showed foreign investment flowing to 22 Arab countries (with more than 280 million people in 14.8 million square kilometers) is less than what flows into the tiny city-state of Singapore (less than 4 million people in less than 600 square kilometers).
Abdul Latif al-Hamad, director general of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, said at the beginning of the meeting, “The fact that the Arab countries are in danger of being marginalized in this world environment should stimulate them to make the necessary reforms and implement the right policies to avoid losing their share in the benefits of growth in the world economy. This is the real challenge to the leadership in this region.”
If this sounds like an economic revolution supported by Washington, that’s exactly what it is. Al-Hamad goes further, “Most observers concede that is is narrow nationalism and state monopoly and not Islamic heritage that brought about dictatorship in the Arab countries, and destroyed individual rights and freedom. No doubt that liberalization will find fertile grounds in the Arab countries, if their citizens are empowered to mold their own destiny.”
So the recipe is there. Now “empowered Arab citizens” just have to get rid of the Saddams – and the Mubaraks, the Abdullahs, the al-Sabahs and the Arafats – so that the whole Arab world may happily abandon its pervasive impotence.