By Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
Friday, February 11, 2011; 4:00 PM
The protesters on the streets of Cairo who, in just 18 days, ended the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak were not merely demanding the end of an unjust, corrupt and oppressive regime. They did not merely decry privation, unemployment or the disdain with which their leaders treated them. They had long suffered such indignities. What they fought for was something more elusive and more visceral.
The Arab world is dead. Egypt's revolution is trying to revive it.
From the 1950s onward, Arabs took pride in their anti-colonial struggle, in their leaders' standing and in the sense that the Arab world stood for something, that it had a mission: to build independent nation-states and resist foreign domination.
In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser presided over a ruinous economy and endured a humiliating defeat against Israel in 1967. Still, Cairo remained the heart of the larger Arab nation - the Arab public watched as Nasser railed against the West, defied his country's former masters, nationalized the Suez Canal and taunted Israel. Meanwhile, Algeria wrested its independence from France and became the refuge of revolutionaries; Saudi Arabia led an oil embargo that shook the world economy; and Yasser Arafat gave Palestinians a voice and put their cause on the map.
Throughout, the Arab world suffered ignominious military and political setbacks, but it resisted. Some around the world may not have liked the sounds coming from Cairo, Algiers, Baghdad and Tripoli, but they took notice. There were defeats for the Arab world, but no surrender.
But that world passed, and Arab politics fell silent. Other than to wait and see what others might do, Arab regimes have no clear and effective approach toward any of the issues vital to their collective future, and what policies they do have contradict popular feeling. It is that indifference that condemned the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt to irrelevance.
Most governments in the region were resigned to or enabled the invasion of Iraq; since then, the Arab world has had virtually no impact on Iraq's course. It has done little to achieve Palestinian aspirations besides backing a peace process in which it no longer believes. When Israel went to war with Hezbollah in 2006 and then with Hamas two years later, most Arab leaders privately cheered the Jewish state. And their position on Iran is unintelligible; they have delegated ultimate decision-making to the United States, which they encourage to toughen its stance but then warn about the consequences of such action.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, pillars of the Arab order, are exhausted, bereft of a cause other than preventing their own decline. For Egypt, which stood tallest, the fall has been steepest. But long before Tahrir Square, Egypt forfeited any claim to Arab leadership. It has gone missing in Iraq, and its policy toward Iran remains restricted to protestations, accusations and insults. It has not prevailed in its rivalry with Syria and has lost its battle for influence in Lebanon. It has had no genuine impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process, was unable to reunify the Palestinian movement and was widely seen in the region as complicit in Israel's siege on Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Riyadh has helplessly witnessed the gradual ascendancy of Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region. It was humiliated in 2009 when it failed to crush rebels in Yemen despite formidable advantages in resources and military hardware. Its mediation attempts among Palestinians in 2007, and more recently in Lebanon, were brushed aside by local parties over which it once held considerable sway.
The Arab leadership has proved passive and, when active, powerless. Where it once championed a string of lost causes - pan-Arab unity, defiance of the West, resistance to Israel - it now fights for nothing. There was more popular pride in yesterday's setbacks than in today's stupor.
Arab states suffer from a curse more debilitating than poverty or autocracy. They have become counterfeit, perceived by their own people as alien, pursuing policies hatched from afar. One cannot fully comprehend the actions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians and others without considering this deep-seated feeling that they have not been allowed to be themselves, that they have been robbed of their identities.
Taking to the streets is not a mere act of protest. It is an act of self-determination.
Where the United States and Europe have seen moderation and cooperation, the Arab public has sensed a loss of dignity and of the ability to make free decisions. True independence was traded in for Western military, financial and political support. That intimate relationship distorted Arab politics. Reliant on foreign nations' largesse and accountable to their judgment, the narrow ruling class became more responsive to external demands than to domestic aspirations.
Alienated from their states, the people have in some cases searched elsewhere for guidance. Some have been drawn to groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have resisted and challenged the established order. Others look to non-Arab states, such as Turkey, which under its Islamist government has carved out a dynamic, independent role, or Iran, which flouts Western threats and edicts.
The breakdown of the Arab order has upended natural power relations. Traditional powers punch below their weight, and emerging ones, such as Qatar, punch above theirs. Al-Jazeera has emerged as a full-fledged political actor because it reflects and articulates popular sentiment. It has become the new Nasser. The leader of the Arab world is a television network.
Popular uprisings are the latest step in this process. They have been facilitated by a newfound fearlessness and feeling of empowerment - watching the U.S. military's struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Israel's inability to subdue Hezbollah and Hamas, Arab peoples are no longer afraid to confront their own regimes.
For the United States, the popular upheaval lays bare the fallacy of an approach that relies on Arab leaders who mimic the West's deeds and parrot its words, and that only succeeds in discrediting the regimes without helping Washington. The more the United States gave to the Mubarak regime, the more it lost Egypt. Arab leaders have been put on notice: A warm relationship with the United States and a peace deal with Israel will not save you in your hour of need.
Injecting economic assistance into faltering regimes will not work. The grievance Arab peoples feel is not principally material, and one of its main targets is over-reliance on the outside. U.S. calls for reform will likewise fall flat. A messenger who has backed the status quo for decades is a poor voice for change. Attempts to pressure regimes can backfire, allowing rulers to depict protests as Western-inspired and opposition leaders as foreign stooges.
Some policymakers in Western capitals have convinced themselves that seizing the moment to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will placate public opinion. This is to engage in both denial and wishful thinking. It ignores that Arabs have become estranged from current peace efforts; they believe that such endeavors reflect a foreign rather than a national agenda. And it presumes that a peace agreement acceptable to the West and to Arab leaders will be acceptable to the Arab public, when in truth, it is more likely to be seen as an unjust imposition and denounced as the liquidation of a cherished cause. A peace effort intended to salvage order will accelerate its demise.
The Arab world's transition from old to new is rife with uncertainty about its pace and endpoint. When and where transitions take place, they will express a yearning for more assertiveness. Governments will have to change their spots; their publics will wish them to be more like Turkey and less like Egypt.
For decades, the Arab world has been drained of its sovereignty, its freedom, its pride. It has been drained of politics. Today marks politics' revenge.
Hussein Agha, a senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University, is a co-author of "A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine." Robert Malley is the Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs.