Middle East stability to what end?

The West needs to abandon Cold War narratives of security and embrace democratic changes in the Arab world.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

Imagine someone telling you last month that the streets of Cairo would be filled with pro-democracy protesters demanding a regime change, individual freedoms and respect for human rights.

You probably wouldnâÄôt have believed it. You also probably would have expected American leaders and their allies to emphatically embrace such a transformational change in Egypt and the Arab world, right?

In truth, the West âÄî especially the administration of President Barack Obama âÄî is blinded by irrational fears of “instability,” “chaos” and “Islamist takeovers.” The West is missing its chance to truly win the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East. Instead of backing the popular pro-democracy revolts in Egypt, American leaders and their allies have been afraid of what democratic change could mean for Western geostrategic interests.

Unfortunately, it seems the fear of instability has prevented U.S. support of the protesters so far. EgyptâÄôs president and 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak has made concessions which the U.S. supports, such as the appointment of a new vice president, the termination of his old cabinet and a promise not to run in the upcoming September elections.

But despite ObamaâÄôs calls for a transition and a diplomatic hint that Mubarak should leave, the narratives of Arab instability and disorder have outweighed any optimistic pro-democracy rhetoric from U.S. leaders and their allies.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized several times that an orderly, nonchaotic transition would be necessary for EgyptâÄôs stability.

BritainâÄôs former Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of Egyptian instability and the implications for Israel, asking how to “manage” the protestersâÄô demands “so that we get there with stability, not chaos, and some sense of order.”

And ironically, Mubarak himself jumped on the bandwagon during an interview with Christiane Amanpour last week, blaming the Egyptian people for the chaos his own police forces unleashed when they killed scores of protesters and detained foreign journalists.

But what does stability really mean, and how far will the West go to attain it in the Middle East? ItâÄôs a vague and precarious concept that has been used by America to justify its financial support of repressive dictatorships like that of Mubarak and TunisiaâÄôs former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali âÄî which respectively received $1.5 billion and $12 million in security assistance.

Only three other foreign governments receive regular U.S. taxpayer-funded military aid: Israel, Jordan and Colombia âÄî all of which have questionable human rights records.

Ironically, the American need for stability has actually promoted instability in the Middle East, with hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens protesting against the institutionalized corruption and repression of their police states.

Still, the need for stability is an argument echoed by officials and the media. An editorial in the Minnesota Daily last week mentioned that EgyptâÄôs “chaos” may result in a power vacuum or an Islamic revolution like that of Iran in 1979. The editorial also argued that, if elections take place, movements like GazaâÄôs Hamas will emerge.

U.S. fears not only hearken back to Cold War fear-mongering of an Eastern “other,” but they falsely assume that the histories of Egypt, Iran, Palestine and others are one and the same. Also, an Islamic revolution is the least likely outcome in Egypt, considering that while the protesters may predominantly adhere to Islam, they envision a secular state.

Another flaw with the narrative of stability is the irrational fear that radical Islamist groups are always waiting for an opportunity to seize power and attack us.

Historically, itâÄôs actually been our government that has invaded Middle Eastern countries in order to bring “radical Islamist” groups into power. Take President Ronald ReaganâÄôs backing of PakistanâÄôs Zia ul-Haq, for example, whose radical programs we supported with Saudi funding in order to undermine the Soviet Union.

The Cold War is over, but history continues to repeat itself. Why does the U.S. insist on allying with regimes that jail their activists, censor media and political parties and torture dissidents? Is this the democracy that Obama spoke about in his 2009 speech in Cairo, during which he said human rights are universal?

Indeed, the U.S. understands its quandary, which is why the president is playing a balancing act with his words. Obama called on EgyptâÄôs government to take “concrete steps” to begin “reforms,” while at the same time staying away from denouncing Mubarak himself.

But rhetoric means nothing if the U.S. refuses to follow through with action. By not explicitly taking a side, the U.S. is in effect taking a side with the status quo.

And as long as Western governments reinforce the status quo, anti-Americanism in the Middle East will continue to increase. According to polls by the Brookings Institution released in August, 77 and 88 percent of Arabs view the U.S. and Israel as major threats, respectively. In fact, popular Arab opinion is so hostile to U.S. foreign policies that 57 percent believe regional security would be improved if Iran developed nuclear weapons.

This is the opportunity Obama must seize to reverse this trend and gain popular Arab support. ItâÄôs not in U.S. interests to paternalistically dictate what Arabs must do to attain “stability.” But itâÄôs also not in U.S. interests to distance itself from the very democratic changes for which it has long called.


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected]