As I watch events unfolding on the streets of Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere in the region I'm reminded of a summer I spent in Egypt studying Arabic language and Middle East politics at The American University in Cairo. For a time I was booked into the upscale Shepheard Hotel (on the Fulbright Commission’s dime) on the banks of the Nile in downtown Cairo. Over the course of several weeks I came to know Mohammed, my regular breakfast server, and learned that he had a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering but owing to the abysmal economic situation considered himself fortunate to have any job to support his family.
One morning a young Kuwaiti prince swept in, sat down at an adjacent table and immediately began to berate Mohammed's as if he were a servant. As nearly as I could tell from my rudimentary Arabic he complained about the tea water's temperature, insufficient shine on the silverware and the food’s quality. I noticed that Mohammed bowed, accepted this humiliating treatment and profusely apologized to avoid offending this arrogant punk.
After the Kuwaiti left, I asked Mohammed about their exchange and he replied "Yes, that happens quite frequently. These spoiled rich kids from the Gulf come to Cairo to whore around and load up on luxury goods. Yes, it’s difficult to be treated this way but I can't afford to lose this job. They can do this way because the oil happens to be under their sand. My hope is that someday we will overthrow all these corrupt regimes, starting with our own, and this democratic movement will spread to the Gulf states. My dream is that we could use the oil wealth to benefit all people of the region and even extend it to people around the Third World. Then he wistfully said, "If your government didn't support these wretched regimes my dream might come true. Please tell your citizens that we are suffering because your government backed Sadat and now Mubarak."
Of course U.S. policymaker’s recurring nightmare is that genuine democratization breaks out in in Egypt and spreads to the oil monarchies. And one assumes that at this moment Washington is doing everything in its power to sabotage this possibility or try to mitigate the damage. In a comment that won’t surprise the Arab street, Secretary of State Clinton recently credited Mubarek’s police state with “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” We know that Mubarek's predecessor, "Pharoah" Anwar Sadat, sold out the Palestinians for thirty pieces of silver — U.S. taxpayer subsidies have averaged $2 billion a year for 30 years—from Washington in 1979 and paid for it by being assassinated in 1981. I vividly recall the absolute puzzlement on the faces of U.S. journalists covering Sadat’s funeral as they searched in vain for grieving Egyptians.
One hopes the current democratic stirrings succeed in toppling the three-decade old Mubarak dictatorship and then spread to Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and beyond. As Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamabwy recently noted about Tunisia, “We don’t have only one Ben Ali in the Arab world; we have 22 Ben Alis, and they all need to go.” I'm cautiously optimistic that more chickens have (finally) come home to roost in this part of the world for U.S. foreign policy and that it's yet another indicator of a declining U.S. empire.
Finally, some thirty years ago, when I made some research and study visits to the region, most of the activists I encountered were secular, nominally Muslim and sometimes Christian. Thanks to U.S. opposition to nationalism, U.S./Israeli intransigence toward Palestinian rights, and Washington’s embrace of brutal dictatorships, “Islam is the answer” gained added support. I could be wrong but more recently, it seems that younger Arabs are returning to something more secular, a yearning for basic human rights, decency and democracy untethered to say, the Muslim Brotherhood or other sclerotic ideologies. And as we take inspiration from those in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt we’d do well to consider how we might match their courageous commitment.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org