Another day, another potentially effective reformer with a record of vile anti-Semitic remarks. An Egyptian activist, who was about to receive an award from the U.S. government, apparently had tweeted that the deaths of Israelis in a bus bombing was good news, and had celebrated September 11th. This comes two days after Hamas canceled the three year-old Gaza marathon rather than let women participate.
The Palestinian people desire the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. The Egyptian people desire the end of dictatorship and the establishment of a free and democratic government. While these peoples have to make these difficult changes themselves, they would benefit greatly from international support. This support would come in many forms: more enthusiastic NGO workers, more pressure on the Israeli government and oppressive Arab regimes, and a generally positive world attitude to Arab empowerment.
If it appears to the rest of the world, however, that rights of women and religious minorities will not be respected, the good will and the political support that the changes engender will remain tepid. Recently I spoke with a retired CIA officer who had spent most of his career in the Middle East. He was well informed, spoke Arabic, and seemed to not be a reactionary. He, however, did put forth the familiar argument that the Arab world was generations away from the ability to field governments that upheld rule of law and minority rights. He cited anti-Semitism and sexism (as well as corruption) as his major pieces of evidence. The implication for U.S. policy was clear: it should retain a “realist” posture vis-à-vis Arab countries, and not invest much time and effort into democratization efforts likely to fail.
The PBS series Makers, on the modern feminist movement in the United States, does a terrific job showing how the broad civil right movement was weakened at times by the various constituents failing to support one another: racial and anti-war activists being sexist, feminist activists being anti-gay and unconscious of black women’s needs, and more. So these failures are hardly unique to the world of Arab activism.
As a teacher, I keep coming back to education. What does the Egyptian school system teach about other religions? Where did the Hamas leaders who made the decision about the marathon go to school? As U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day!
Cory McCarty said:
The lessons of the Arab Spring seems to support the CIA officer’s position, at least for now. And I worry that the path to improvement may be even more difficult than you suggest. The people in the urban areas of Egypt seem to generally support more liberal, secular, and inclusive democratic candidates. But the rural majority is overwhelmingly Islamist. That makes the education problem even more difficult to solve.
Also, I don’t think we, as Americans, do a very good job of looking out for either our own interests or those of the people in the countries we meddle in. The popular (and media) view on Syria is a great example. We don’t like Assad, so we naturally support the opposition. We conveniently gloss over the widespread involvement of al -Qaeda and the likely death toll if the Assad regime does fall.
Well, traditionally out of fear of popular Islamism we back the dictators. I would suggest we seek to engage more with moderate Islamists, even at the risk sometimes dealing with more radical Islamists than we thought. I also suggest we continue to back democratic change even if the risk of those movements sometimes devolving into chaos or another nondemocratic regime. Finally I suggest we leverage our soft power – nothing like a bridge labeled “a gift from the American people” to reduce terrorism.
All that said, of course I am quite frustrated with the direction that much of the Arab revolts are going right now.
Cory McCarty said:
I agree that more engagement would be beneficial. I also think putting more emphasis (and funding) on the work of USAID would be very beneficial in many areas (if only we had done more of that in Afghanistan long ago!).
On the other side of the coin, I sometimes wonder whether we should simply discontinue all direct financial aid to most foreign countries. It drives me nuts that in many cases attaching any strings to it results in a MASSIVE PR hit (see: Pakistan). And we end up giving huge amounts of money to regimes that are either directly hostile to our interests (see: Pakistan, Egypt/Morsi) or actively work to manipulate us and use us as their own tool (see: Israel). It is incredibly frustration.
Yes, I share your skepticism about aid to governments. Of course, in each case we would have to ask what would happen if we stopped giving the aid. Would the situation better, or worse? For example, I think the American government has effectively leveraged its Egyptian aid to keep Egypt’s foreign policy in line with ours. We should use our foreign aid to Israel in a similar way, to create pressure to end the occupation and blockade.