The Solitude of the Young Arab Democrats

Hassan I. Mneimneh, IjthadReason, 2/3/2011

Youth in the Arab world, imbued with liberal and democratic values, have acted, from Tunisia onwards. It seems that in the judgment of some in the West, however, that their understanding of democracy is lacking...With the greatest proponent of democracy shying away from supporting their struggle, the young democrats of the Arab world stand alone. The world around them, it seems, is full of autocrats, theocrats, and hypocrites.

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Subject: Islam/West

More by: Hassan I. Mneimneh

The longing for freedom, justice, and opportunities for individual and collective progress are innate traits of human nature. They are universal values, despite disparate attempts at obfuscating this self-evident truth – whether these attempts come in the form of a cultural relativism that postulates that Shari'ah, however ill-defined or undefined, is what motivates the individual and society in settings that are thus reduced to being labeled Muslim, or whether these attempts emanate from a variably camouflaged cultural elitism that predicates the appreciation of universal values on the successful completion of English-language college-level courses on Locke, Hobbes, Burke, and Jefferson.

The young men and women who are defying a generation of authoritarianism in Egypt may or may not have completed such courses, and may or may not have their own understanding of the place of religion in their public and private life. What they are seeking, through their actions far more than through their words, is the dignity of having an authentic say in their fate and that of their country. No doubt, the forces at play in the unfolding of the Egyptian drama transcend the mere dichotomy of the authoritarian rule and the generation of idealist youth. Political, social, economic, and geo-strategic interests intersect and overlap. To deny this intricate reality is to succumb to simplistic romanticism. However, on the reverse side, to dismiss the crystal clear reality of a movement driven by values – ones that are shared by all fellow humans of decency – is to revert to questionable cynicism.

Arab culture has often resorted to caricatured renderings of the role of the United States in Arab politics. Many, if not most ills, were attributed to some American desire to subjugate, exploit, or destroy. While being indeed a grotesque distortion of the role of the United States in the region, the seeds for such a depiction often reside in the complex interplay between US interests and American values in charting the course of policy in the Middle East. Neither the United States, nor any other power, could ignore the strategic importance of the region, even when virtually all of the quarters of the Middle East are occupied by despots and autocrats. Sober reality imposes the maintenance of relationships in accordance with the delicate calculation of how to preserve interests without betraying values.

There is, however, a crucial moral difference between accepting the reality of oppression, and hoping to mitigate it, which is the course that the United States has followed with Egypt for the past three decades, and empowering the oppressor through acts of commission and omission when the oppressed is striving to shed the shackles of oppression, which is what is happening today. No, the United States is not the root cause of oppression in Egypt. No, the United States is not the world's police authority. No, the United States is not to be expected to liberate anyone. But yes, the United States can no longer support the despotic murderous regime of Husni Mubarak, which issues hollow and incredible promises of intent to implement reform, only to dispatch its medieval thuggery on peaceful protestors.

The United States cannot remain in the gray zone, offering the Mubarak regime comfort, if not aid, when its oppression machine is devising and implementing innovative and burlesque methods for the restoration of its lost gravitas. The United States cannot do so first and foremost on the basis of its own integrity, values, and principles. It also cannot afford to do it out of shear US national interest. The regime of Husni Mubarak has been fatally wounded. Allowing it to abort the civilized alternative that has considerable chances of being formulated in its stead will not resuscitate it for good. It may merely allow it to survive a bit longer, only to succumb to the other alternative, radicalism, which will assert itself once the combination of regime brutality and Western complacency obliterate the democratic movement.

Egypt is a test for the grass-roots democratic current that has surreptitiously driven many youth across the Arab world. Enabled by the new media, this fragile current presents itself as an alternative to the three dominant frameworks that seek to define and control the young men and women of the wide Arabic-speaking world: the authoritarianism of the state, often descending into abject totalitarianism; the radicalism of the Islamist opposition, in its multiple nihilistic, destructive, and homicidal forms; and Western-style consumerism, void of much of the balancing elements that keeps it in check elsewhere. It may be that through this consumerism, judged distractive and benign if not useful by the state and thus tolerated or even encouraged, that windows into the wider world allowed youth in the Arab world to reclaim values of universal validity.

Youth in the Arab world, imbued with liberal and democratic values, have acted, from Tunisia onwards. It seems that in the judgment of some in the West, however, that their understanding of democracy is lacking. Accordingly, some erstwhile proponents of democracy, out of their stated fear of radicalism, are positioning themselves in the ranks of their club-wielding oppressors. There cannot be a better example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the greatest proponent of democracy shying away from supporting their struggle, the young democrats of the Arab world stand alone. The world around them, it seems, is full of autocrats, theocrats, and hypocrites.

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