Beware the Islamic bogeyman
When parents in Egypt want to frighten children into behaving they tell them about Abu Rigl Maslukha which is Arabic for The Man With Burnt Leg – a monster who got burnt when he was a child because he disobeyed his parents. He grabs naughty children and cook and eats them.
In the West we have a bogeyman too. We call it Islam, or when we are being sophisticated Islamicism. Our allies, or erstwhile allies, do the same. So Ben Ali claimed that Islamists were behind the revolution in Tunisia. Mubarak warned of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – or the Brotherhood as it is foreshortened by Western making it sound as if it were invented by Dan Brown. King Abdullah of Jordan dropped dark hints about al-Qa’ida as he appointed a new prime minister. The Bahraini authorities detected the bloody hand of Hizbollah behind the uprising there. In Iran the supreme leader pronounced that the Egyptian people’s success was a victory for Islam. Colonel Gaddafi in Libya blamed all the trouble on al-Qa’ida and drug addicts, those twin nemeses of Western civilisation. All these views are merely echoes of those of many in the political Establishment in the West
This Islamic threat is a hangover from the ‘war on terror’. It blatantly ignores the fact that the wave of rebellion across the Middle East has been provoked by mass poverty, unemployment and grotesquely corrupt and oppressive regimes. We have played our part in this. Faced with a choice between stability and democracy, in a region which controls most of our oil supplies, we have plumped for stability, while playing lip service to the ideal of democracy. Our “interests” and our “values” were in conflict, as they delicately put it in Washington, finally acknowledging the contradictions of George Bush’s infamous “democracy agenda”.
But we were only in favour of democracy as long as the Arabs didn’t vote for the wrong people. That’s what the people of Algeria did in 1992 and a US-backed military coup followed. It’s what the Palestinians did in Gaza in 2006 when they elected Hamas. It’s what the people of Lebanon did when they endorsed the rise to power of Hezbollah. Small wonder that the demonstrators of the Middle East have raised their eyebrows at the West’s most recent pro-democracy noises. “We are getting shot by American weapons fired by American-trained Bahraini soldiers with American-made tanks,” a protestor in Bahrain told a Western journalist. “And now Obama wants to be on our side?”
The invisible empire which the United States built across the Arab world after Suez in 1956 – and whose influence it maintained using brutal and corrupt client dictators, just as it did in Africa during the Cold War – is collapsing. The world is changing faster than we can keep up with – as David Cameron demonstrated when he visited post-Mubarak Egypt with a caravan of arms dealers in tow.
The old paradigm is breaking down. The price is being paid in blood by Arab people. The damage, or inconvenience, to the West is, as yet, only peripheral but we may yet reap the whirlwind we have sown. The Arab nations, and in due course perhaps others, like Pakistan, will assert their independence. They may not all choose a path of which Washington will approve.
What is striking so far is the extent to which the Islamic bogeyman has vanished into the night. These are pro-democracy uprisings utilising the latest methods of Western communication like Facebook and Twitter. And yet America’s Middle Eastern empire is crumbling as surely as that of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe in 1989 when Washington hubristically pronounced itself the victor in the Cold War and the last super-power standing. So much for the End of History.
It is far from over yet. The old dictators may simply be replaced by new ones. The great pillar of America’s covert imperial power – Saudi Arabia – is still standing, though the Saudi stock exchange took a massive tumble when the uprising in Egypt began. And Washington’s greatest ally, Israel, remains as strongly obdurate as ever in a relationship in which the tail all too often seems to wag the dog.
But this is a region where things are shifting massively. US allies have been tumbling ever since the Shah of Iran went in 1979. Saddam Hussein was once another thuggish and corrupt bulwark of Western stability. Mubarak was so sound that the Bush regime was able to use Egypt and its brutal secret police as torturers of any suspected terrorist Washington arrested anywhere and then “rendered” to Mubarak’s jails.
No wonder that Gaddafi is mystified that the West – who Tony Blair persuaded to abandon his weapons of mass destruction and his covert support for terrorists elsewhere – have not only dropped him now but are actively conniving in his overthrow.
But beneath all that the pressure cooker that is the Arab world was simmering with suppressed frustration and resentment at the deal this old dispensation offered the ordinary man in the street – poverty, unemployment, disempowerment and brutal police state repression. That was summed up not by the bogeyman with the burned leg but by a real man who doused himself in petrol and set his whole body alight.
Muhammad Al Bouazizi, 26, was a poor Tunisian who could not find a job after graduating. So he launched a tiny business selling fruit and veg on the streets to make ends meet. One day, after refusing to pay the usual bribe to a policewoman, he had his fruit and veg confiscated. When he tried to get it back the woman slapped his face. “Should I become a thief? Should I die?” he shouted, and fell to the ground and cried.
But then he summoned up his courage and pride and pushed his empty fruit cart to the gates of the provincial governor to complain at this public humiliation. When the authorities would not listen, angry and despairing, he poured the petrol all over himself. Then he struck a match. The flames he ignited have spread across the entire Arab world.