Mideast Unrest Is a Change the World Should Believe In, Scholar Says

Middle East scholar Prof. Fouad Ajami says current furor in the Arab world catalyzed not by a fruit vendor in Tunisia but by the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

The conventional wisdom has it that the wave of revolutions shaking up the Middle East these days began with Tunisian produce-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in reaction to a humiliating slap by a policewoman. Prof. Fouad Ajami, a renowned scholar of the Middle East, commentator and writer who had close ties to the Bush administration, thinks the sign of what was to come actually appeared several years earlier, with the arrest of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"There was a very distinct moment," says Ajami. "Yes, Saddam was flushed out of his spider hole. There was something very significant - they saw him come, hands up, without firing a shot. So they learned about the falseness and the false bravado of these dictators they revered and whose names they chanted. They saw him surrender in a very humiliating way. People who loved Saddam, people who hated Saddam, took notice of what happened."

Prof. Fouad Ajami.

Unlike many other conservative commentators, Ajami, who in his day aroused sharp controversy because of his staunch support for the war in Iraq, has reservations about giving all the credit to the Bush doctrine. "It wasn't American tanks" that brought about this moment, he observes. "It was a homegrown enterprise. It was Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans conquering their fear - people went out and conquered fear and did something amazing."

Why didn't it happen before?

Ajami: "You know I have a feeling that if you and I sat down and looked at every revolution, the Chinese, the Bolshevik, etc., we could always say, and we would be absolutely right: Look at this pile, all the ingredients of revolution are there - hunger, tyranny, corruption, corrupt wives, corrupt greedy sons, etc. - and nothing happens. And then someone throws a match into this pile, and the world erupts. It really is a mystery. There's a mystery in all revolutions. After these Arab revolutions of 2011, I just pulled a whole bunch of books off the shelves and began looking at the Bolshevik revolution, the French revolution and other revolutions, and the question that you so rightly posed could be asked of any and each revolution: Why did it erupt on a certain day when all the ingredients were there and nothing happened? 'Who would have thunk it,' as they say in Texas? Who would have thought that a vegetable seller in a forlorn Tunisian village would get slapped in the face by a headstrong policewoman and that all hell would break loose in the Arab world?

Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi during a visit to Italy, in 2009.Credit: Reuters

"Suddenly the Egyptians had this remarkable gift given to them. They felt challenged by Tunisia, they felt that the Tunisians had stolen a march on them, as you say. And there you go - you have this revolution. A friend of mine, an Egyptian I love dearly, described to me his excitement on the phone. He said, 'On Friday January 28, a very big day in the Egyptian revolution, I went to the mosque, I prayed, I then went across the street to have some coffee and then go home, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I see tens of thousands of people, an endless stream of humanity making its way to Tahrir, and I never expected to see this happen in my country.'"

This spontaneity, says Ajami, "is the nature of revolution. They happen suddenly and their speed is astonishing."

Until now, the scholar admits, he didn't have a good sense about where things were heading in the Arab world. "I had written some books and always had this kind of pessimism about Arab politics - and always had this feeling that there are terrible rulers and worse oppositions. But this revolution of 2011 has given me hope that something different is being born. Observing the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt and the general trends in the region - you just have a hope that a new politics is rearing its head.

"In this revolution I sense that people my age, who were born and raised in post-World War II years, the baby boomers - we are done, we are finished, there is nothing left, we've given what we could and we've failed at things that we failed at, but there is something about these young people that seems more true to me, more optimistic, less ideological.

"We haven't seen it fully, but I'm optimistic about Egypt. They have in their DNA this kind of democratic politics, they remember that there was once democratic politics, a progressive social agenda, that Egypt was once a decent country. I understand that crowds are dangerous and crowds can turn, but there is something about these crowds that didn't chant about America, didn't chant 'death to the Jewish state.' There is promise in this moment of Arab politics. It's not a sure thing, history never gives us this kind of confidence, and revolutions get betrayed, revolutions get hijacked, revolutions go astray, wrong men come to power. All these outcomes are very possible, but there is something in this moment that bodes well for Arabs.

"These young people - I cannot fear them. I have a granddaughter who is 4 years old, and I see a girl a bit older than her with an Egyptian flag, and I see people bringing their kids to Tahrir Square to show them the new liberty. I can't tell them: 'Sorry, boys, I don't believe in you.' I can't do this, because it's a betrayal of history. I believe in these people and I will speak for them, until shown something else. History is open, and I can't say the region will always be stuck with these pathologies."

But we're talking about the same generation that was proclaimed the lost one - frustrated young people who are having a hard time finding jobs and making their voices heard in oppressive regimes.

"Not everyone is Mohamed Atta," responds Ajami, referring to the young Egyptian who was one of the September 11 hijackers. "I don't think that I want to hold Atta as a rebuke to those young people, and what they are showing us - that they are willing to stay peaceful in revolution. And I can't tell them, 'Look, you are all pathological Mohamed Attas.' It's just completely cruel. Because people come because of the love of their country and because they've defeated the fear of death squads. I won't break faith with these people until I see something that calls for breaking faith with them. Before that, I won't condemn them. I saw Libyan people conquering fear with all they know about the cruelty of the monster Muammar Gadhafi and telling us they wish to be free of his tyranny. I don't think it's much of a choice. When you see history, and you see it to be noble, you have to respond. You can't hold previous afflictions and maladies against them. So my conscience is clear on this one - this is a good revolution."

No good autocrats

For several years, the West flirted with Gadhafi after he gave up his nuclear program and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the Lockerbie bombing victims. Ajami, though, never had any illusions about him.

"I think he's a killer, hyena and part fox," he says. "I never believed anything he said. I've written a book that basically chronicled his murder of Imam Mussa Sadr [a Lebanese Shi'ite leader who mysteriously disappeared along with his retinue on a visit to Libya in 1978 at Gadhafi's invitation].

"There are no good autocrats," he adds, and that applies to King Abdullah of Jordan as well. "I don't believe in King Abdullah. Governments don't mean a lot in Jordan, the palace decides everything. Besides, he did something that to me is very problematic - he promised his father on his deathbed that his half-brother Hamza would be his crown prince, and then he decided at the drop of a hat to make his own son his inheritor. It seems wrong to me, it's a break of faith. Anyway, King Abdullah has his own problems at home. He is not going to be overthrown, but he has to draw a decent social contract with his country. He needs to spend less time in Davos and with the Clinton's initiative and more with the tribes of Jordan. He, too, needs to change his ways. If he won't, he'll end up exactly where the others ended. He has a possibility of being reformed. He is not Bashar Assad. He is no killer. But nevertheless, he is not a democrat either. He's a kind of mild autocrat. I want to see him come to terms with the realities of Jordan."

We've been told by analysts many times that the only organized opposition in the Arab world is Islamists. We've seen pretty different crowds in Tahrir Square and solidarity among protesters of different Arab countries. Is it some reincarnation of Pan-Arabism, Facebook age?

"In my opinion, pan-Arabism is dead. It's finished. Pan-Arabism of my generation, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, that argued that borders don't exist, is finished completely. There are young people that can get on Facebook, Twitter - they do have these means of communication, but they are Tunisians, Egyptians, they don't insist on this immortal Arab nation. They do not say the borders are false. They don't hold pan-Arab solutions, they hold national solutions. They know the specificity of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. So this old Arab nationalism is dead and can never be revived. The young are done with it. They are concerned about tyrannies, about the theft, the plundering, the personal fortunes amassed by the Gadhafis, the house of Mubarak, the house of Assad. These rulers stole the public treasures and became wealthy beyond any comprehension.

"You have 360 million Arabs ruled by a handful of autocrats, mostly old, but some young, as in Jordan, Syria and Morocco. And eight of the Arab states practice torture on a regular basis. We know there are political prisons for the dissidents. We know there is massive economic failure, that the Arab world did not have economic growth since the '80s, that tens of millions of Arabs live below the poverty line.

"The young Arabs see the facts of their life, and many are eager to flee the Arab world, to London or Berlin or Oslo, and many of them leave. But this is their world and they have to make a stand in Cairo and Rabat and Tunis. They have to try to build a better public order for themselves. The pathologies of the Arab world are so deep, and these young people came to understand these pathologies.

"Lately I've been receiving a lot of letters by email from young Arabs trying to make sense of what is happening around them, and I was struck by their patriotism, love of home, Egypt, Tunisia, Gulf countries. They wish to reclaim their countries for themselves, from the dictators and their wives and their children. There was a kind of celebratory mood, and as a historian I know these things sometimes evaporate, but something has convinced me this is a very special moment in the lives of Arabs."

How does Israel fit into this new reality?

"I think Israel should not be afraid of Arab democracy. I've been very friendly to Israel and [to] the prospects of reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, so take this as advice from a friend. I can remind you of what Natan Sharansky pointed out when he said that democrats who hate you are less dangerous than dictators who love you. There is a certain level of security that comes from autocracies, and Israel is not alone in this. The United States went to many lands and preferred dealing with autocrats because there is stability there. But the bargain with an autocrat is never a good bargain.

"Israel had made peace with pharaohs, but the peace between Israel and the Arab people has not yet come. And I understand that it's harder and more risky, but I still think that the peace of democracies makes more sense. There is something we now fully understand: Dictators that made peace with Israel and an accommodation with the U.S. - they always played from the bottom of the deck and always resorted to anti-Americanism, anti-modernism and anti-Semitism. I call that the 'holy trinity.' Therefore, Israel shouldn't be afraid of the coming of democracy in the Arab world. I've thought about it, it wasn't always the position I held, I understand the stability of dictatorships, but in the long run, if you want a long-lasting peace, you have to be willing to bet on this democratic experiment."

Peace will endure

Ajami says that if he "were in Israel's shoes," he would also have accepted peace offers from Egypt's Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein.

"The journalists, the physicians, the associations, the intellectuals were against the peace," he notes. "It was an orphan peace. Nobody wanted to be its father. But I think the next stage should be a deeper peace. It should really meet the requirement of Sharansky for a democratic peace."

Asked whether peace between Israel and other countries in the Arab world can be achieved without an agreement with the Palestinians, Ajami replies: "In the case of Egypt and Jordan, they did strike peace on their own. It can happen, but the Arab states in the near future will make the argument that they'll wait until the peace with the Palestinians."

The Egyptians, Ajami is convinced, will maintain the peace agreement. "Not because they love Israel, but because they know the history of what happened in the Arab-Israeli wars of the past. I think the military will keep this peace. It was Sadat who made the peace and Mubarak kept it. The military is going to be very important in Egypt, come what may. People ask, what are the possible futures for Egypt - is it a democracy, is it a theocracy, is it a military dictatorship? And the answer is: all these things and none of the above. There will be elements of religion in politics, there will be strong elements of democracy, and a strong guardian role for the army. I think Egypt has shown the world something good about its civility. I can discern the trends in Egypt's history and I am optimistic now."

He hesitates to predict the effect of the revolutions on the Palestinians. "I don't know what moves them and how they relate to this Arab revolution. I know that Palestinians sympathized with Saddam Hussein. So when the new Iraq was being built, with which I fully and wholeheartedly sympathize, I felt somewhat puzzled and disappointed that they had cast their fate with Saddam and preferred Saddam to what the new Iraq would present to them. So I have stayed away from any commentary on them."

In recent weeks, including this past one, Ajami was invited with other Middle East experts for discussion sessions at the White House.

"I'm not a natural for this White House," he admits. "I've written for two years now against President Barack Obama, ever since he was a candidate. I respect the alternation of power. I had access to the Bush White House, to President Bush directly, to Vice President Cheney, I knew and respected Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, I was a friend of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, I knew [National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley and Secretary Rice. I shared their politics and so their doors were open to me. So I'm not exactly a favorite of this White House, but I was pleased that they invited me. I didn't really contribute much, and we were bound by a confidentiality that I respected.

"My general view of it is now President Obama has a chance with Libya. If I was a policy advocate in a more direct way, I would call on President Obama to declare that the Ghadafi regime is hereby illegitimate and fallen. We consider any regime that uses helicopter gunships and mass terror and mercenaries against its own people, we consider it an illegitimate regime and we will no longer traffic with it. Now people will say, what will you get for this? And I would say a lot. If indeed the president of the United States were to declare Ghadafi's goons illegitimate, there are many, many people sitting on the fence in Libya who would take heart from this.

"Senator [John] Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said something very compelling. He said that we should put the commanders in Libya on notice, that we know who they are, that we are going to follow what they are doing, and come the fall of the regime, we will hold them responsible for war crimes. This would make a tremendous difference.

"I don't agree that there's nothing in the middle between either sending the Marines or wringing our hands. We're not going to send the Marines, that's not going to happen, but wringing our hands is morally and strategically problematic. If it takes declaring the Ghadafi regime illegitimate, an outlaw regime, if we say this unequivocally, not through the secretary of state, not through Vice President Biden, but through Barack Obama himself, standing up in broad daylight saying, 'Look, we've seen all we need to see from this regime, we don't think Muammar Gadhafi is redeemable, and we call upon the Libyan people to hold these criminals accountable' - this would make a tremendous amount of difference."



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