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Give the Arabs Credit

By Mona Eltahawy
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B07

The invasion of Iraq was the equivalent of a bucket of freezing water thrown in the face of an Arab world in deep slumber.

There, I've said it. Can we move on now?

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There is a way to talk about the effect of the Iraq war on the rest of the Arab world without actually supporting that war. This time last year and the year before, I marched in demonstrations in New York against the war on Iraq, which I did not believe was launched in the name of democracy and freedom. But we would be lying to ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a major catalyst for what has been happening lately, be it in Egypt, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia.

As an Egyptian man told me recently, if there was a "domino effect" sparked by the invasion, it was one of questions.

"The U.S. invasion revealed the ability to overthrow one of the worst tyrants around and led to this question: If this regime collapsed, why not the others? Why shouldn't Syria leave Lebanon? Why shouldn't we change the Egyptian regime? Isn't it enough (kifaya) already?"

Kifaya indeed. The word is the slogan of Egypt's National Campaign for Change, which has staged several demonstrations calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 24-year rule. It has appeared on banners in anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut. But ultimately Arabs have been saying kifaya to violence. Beheadings, shock and awe, checkpoint shootings and the loss of thousands of lives in Iraq have sickened Arabs. It is no mean feat that demonstrations in Cairo and in Beirut -- both for and against Syria -- have been peaceful.

But I have a kifaya of my own: Enough already to the tiresome intellectual tropes that liberals and neoconservatives are wasting time on as they argue over the war.

In the United States it is almost impossible to separate support or opposition to the Bush administration from support for the democratic aspirations of Arabs. The endless tango of "for" or "against" the war that the Bush administration and its opponents insist on dancing wastes time and conveniently ignores murky details both sides would prefer to forget.

I am tired of having to remind those who supported the war of the moral failures of Abu Ghraib and of rendition, by which the United States sends terrorism suspects to countries -- such as my own, Egypt -- where they are likely to be tortured. The violence unleashed on Iraq is appalling and most often targets ordinary Iraqis whose numbers remain uncounted in this country and whose stories always lose out to the kidnappings and deaths of non-Iraqis.

I am equally fed up with having to remind those who opposed the war that in their rush to condemn the Bush administration, they should not ignore or condone the continued tyranny of Arab leaders; that as vehemently as they oppose the Bush administration they must not forget that Arab dictators are simply that -- dictators.

And, no, I have not forgotten that the current administration, like its predecessors, continues to support many of those same dictators. It is heartening to hear President Bush say that authoritarian rule in the Middle East is the "last gasp of a discredited past" -- but disappointing when he focuses only on Syria.

I am still waiting for the Bush administration to urge Egypt to end emergency laws that have been in effect since Mubarak assumed power in 1981. I am still waiting for the United States to urge the Saudi royal family to release reform activists whose only crime was to sign a petition calling for change.

So, now what? We must not lose attention or interest. Just as I have acknowledged the jolt the Arab world felt from the Iraq war, so it is imperative to remember that if there hadn't been civil societies already in place in the Arab world, such a jolt would have found no echo.

Brave Arab men and women have for decades toiled, often without credit, for the sake of rights and better lives for their compatriots. Their work must be acknowledged and supported. The conversation about change in the Arab world must be about them and about ordinary Arabs, not about scoring points for or against the Bush administration.

The writer is a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab publication Asharq al-Awsat. Her Web site is www.monaeltahawy.com.

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