In an exciting and revolutionary speech, US President Barack Obama laid out his Middle East doctrine, claiming the new reality created by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia must be grasped. I did not only support those uprisings, he seemed to be saying, I brought them into being when I announced at the University of Cairo that the clash of civilizations had come to an end.
In fact Obama was saying that he was ditching the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush and abandoning American fundamentalism, which opted for regime change by means of war. These policies created a wave of hostility against the US. He came to Cairo, Obama said, to address an Arab audience above the heads of their leaders, to announce that Islam is not the enemy of the US, and to affirm that it is the right of all Arabs to free themselves of poverty and repression and live democratic lives.
There is no doubt that Obama contributed significantly to the fall of the dictators, and that his demand that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down was the final blow for the old regime. Obama tried to pull the US out of the interminable war against Islam, which was costing a high price in terms of resources and human lives at a time his country was in the throes of economic crisis. Under Obama, the US administration understood that the dictatorial regimes would not last long, because nepotism, corruption and oppression. This was causing great anger which, sooner or later, would bring down the regimes. Therefore, these uprisings were not much of a surprise – Obama had read the writing on the wall.
In his recent speech, Obama extolled Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth who set himself alight and thus sparked the uprisings which led to the fall of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and he also praised Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee. Obama claimed the Arab uprisings were infused by values of the America Revolution, the uprising against the British, and the ideals of Rosa Parks who sat in a seat reserved for whites and set off the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yes – Obama appeared as a revolutionary, an enlightened democrat, and shook himself free of all those dictatorships which had been US allies for many long years. He understood which way the wind was blowing, and set sail to direct the course of history.
Appropriating the revolution
Obama is able to do this. He understands that one of the reasons for the uprisings was the economic woes of the masses and the lack of certainty for the future of the youth. The US wants to appropriate these uprisings by channeling billions of dollars towards friendly parties while strengthening the position of big capital. Obama wants enlightened capitalism which will enable the multinational corporations to continue benefiting from their investments in Arab states and allow business owners to flourish, but without corruption, nepotism or political oppression. A realist, he knows that this will take time, and that the Muslim Brotherhood – which was not mentioned in his speech – is a serious obstacle to his plans and to democracy.
But reality is even more convoluted. It may be true that the Egyptian revolution adopted the values of the American revolutionaries and the black struggle for equal rights, but the claim that the Egyptian revolutionaries want to imitate the American model is completely false. The US today is not a role model for any country anywhere in the world. The US, controlled by Wall Street, where the politicians serve the giant oil and insurance companies and the banks, where some 40 million citizens have no health insurance, which has 10% unemployment, and where socioeconomic gaps are among the widest in the world – this country cannot be a model for the world, and Obama’s rhetoric cannot change that fact.
The truth is, the Egyptian revolution has not adopted Obama’s values, but expresses a popular uprising against the economic system of the US. What will Obama say about “los indignados,” the new movement that has occupied Madrid’s central square, bringing thousands of unemployed youth like Bouazizi to the streets? These youth demand regime change, claiming that the two large parties, the rightwing party and the socialist party, are controlled by capital, the banks and the real estate tycoons. What will happen if this movement, which is spreading throughout Europe, reaches the shores of the US? The youth of Egypt, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy demand the same thing – an end to the system of predatory capitalism. Obama, however, is tied to this system, to the great sorrow of the millions of young activists, African-Americans and unionists that brought him to power.
Netanyahu is digging in
Moreover, Israel’s position is a insignificant obstacle in Obama’s attempts to claim the Arab uprisings for himself. From the point of view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama’s speech was disastrous. For the first time, the US is supporting uprisings that will completely transform the Middle Eastern map at Israel’s expense. On the other hand, Obama knows that his revolutionary manners and his warm words will not convince the Arab public if he doesn’t take a clear stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While this conflict is not the main issue in the Arab uprisings, it is nonetheless a crucial yardstick by which the US will be judged. That’s why Obama is demanding Israel recognize a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
For some two years, Netanyahu has been doing all he can to postpone the end. Obama’s Cairo speech made Netanyahu pale with apprehension. He did all he could to make Obama fail, and managed to cause the resignation of George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, after Mitchell’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks came to naught. Now, as revolutions rumble across the region, even reaching Madrid, Netanyahu – like all obstinate dictators – refuses to see reality for what it is, and digs himself into obsolete positions, shored up by his coalition partners. Netanyahu hopes the Muslim Brotherhood will take control in Egypt, that Hamas will take over the West Bank, and the masses demanding freedom in Syria will be suppressed. He always preferred Hamas and their ilk, and hopes they will save his skin this time too.
But Obama is doing his own thing. He has promised to invest billions so that Netanyahu’s hopes will not be realized, and understands that Islamic extremism was vanquished in the streets of Tunis and Cairo even before he got his hands on Osama Bin Laden. American interests guide America’s steps. It cannot fight on two fronts at once, rebuilding its economy and pouring billions into pointless wars. As Obama said in his speech, the attempt to change regimes by means of war has failed. Netanyahu refuses to adapt to this new approach, and the noose is tightening around Israel. Two years wasted have not improved Israel’s international standing; they have only caused its increasing isolation. The uprisings in the Arab world have made the occupation and the continuation of the conflict impossible.
However, Obama is still unable to enforce an agreement. Israel remains a significant strategic asset for the US, and despite Obama’s revolutionary spirit, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel retain their important status. Change, therefore, must come from within. International pressure on one hand, and the Arab uprisings on the other, can cause change on the Palestinian street and in Israeli politics.
The Palestinians must get rid of those who took advantage of their struggle to enjoy the privileges of power, corruption and oppression. Fatah and Hamas have finished their role. If the Egyptian revolution succeeds in building a democratic regime and a society based on social justice, new democratic forces will appear in the Middle East arena. In Israel, predatory capitalism, corruption, socioeconomic gaps and ongoing occupation in the face of world outrage open a window of opportunity for a new social movement – a movement which calls on the current leadership to step down, and demands a just, egalitarian society and peace with the Palestinians.
It’s not clear if this is what Obama has in mind, but this is what history and the uprisings sweeping the region demand.