“Virtually no one in Washington expected such a snowballing of events following Iraq’s elections,” recently explained the deputy editorial editor of the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl.
Said another way, virtually no one in Establishment D.C. expected things would snowball the way Bush had predicted. Still, reports Diehl, the evidence is obvious: “Less than two years after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the fact is that Arabs are marching for freedom and shouting slogans against tyrants in the streets of Beirut and Cairo — and regimes that have endured for decades are visibly tottering. Those who claimed that U.S. intervention could never produce such events have reason to reconsider.”
The tottering tyrants to whom Diehl refers are “the desperate dictators of Syria and Egypt,” the new targets of the perennially outraged Arab street. What’s key here is the switch in demons, the shift in the minds of the raging fist-pumpers who jump up and down in the streets, a change in which devils they’re blaming for their unrelenting humiliation and destitution. Always before, it was the Great and Little Satan, America and Israel. Now it’s the crooked devils in their own nearby palaces, homegrown demons like Bashar Assad and Hosni Mubarak.
“These are autocrats whose regimes had remained unaltered, and unchallenged, for decades,” explained Diehl. “There has been no political ferment in Damascus since the 1960s, or in Cairo since the 1950s. Now, within weeks of Iraq’s elections, Mubarak and Assad are tacking with panicked haste between bold acts of repression, which invite an international backlash, and big promises of reform — which also may backfire, if they prove to be empty. They could yet survive; but quite clearly, the Arab autocrats don’t regard the Bush dream of democratic dominoes as fanciful.”
In a mountain hideout in Lebanon, Washington Post reporter David Ignatius saw much the same story as Diehl had seen in the streets of Cairo. Ignatius interviewed Walid Jumblatt, the patriarch of the Druze Muslim community in Lebanon and, until the recent assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a man who went along with Syria’s occupation.
“I dined Monday night with Jumblatt in his mountain fortress in Moukhtara, southeast of Beirut,” reported Ignatius. “He moved there for safety last weekend because of worries that he would be the next target of whoever killed Hariri. We sat under a portrait of Jumblatt’s father, Kamal, who was assassinated in 1976 after he opposed the initial entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon.”
Like Diehl, Ignatius saw a shift in devils during his talk with Jumblatt: “Over the years, I’ve often heard him denouncing the United States and Israel, but these days, in the aftermath of Hariri’s death, he’s sounding almost like a neoconservative. He says he’s determined to defy the Syrians until their troops leave Lebanon.”
More broadly, Jumblatt tells Ignatius that the spark of democratic revolt in Baghdad is spreading throughout the Arab world. “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq,” explained Jumblatt. “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it.”
In Lebanon, Ignatius witnessed a growing rage that was about more than the assassination of Hariri, about more than Syria’s occupation. “People want the truth about who killed Hariri,” he explained, “but on a deeper level they want the truth about why Arab regimes have failed to deliver on their promises of progress and prosperity.”
They want the truth about why the Muslim world is, as Pakistan’s General Musharraf described it, “the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most unenlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race.”
It’s easy for a once mighty civilization to blame outsiders for its decline, explains Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority on Islamic affairs. At first, the Mongols were the top scapegoat, and then the Turks, then the French and British, and, most recently, “the Jews” and Americans.
The best hope for the future, suggests Lewis, lies with a change in the question. Instead of asking “Who did this to us?,” the world of Islam needs to ask, more self-critically, “What did we do wrong?”
The good news is that’s exactly the question that is now, finally, being asked by growing numbers of people all over the Middle East.