In post-Mubarak Egypt, the rebirth of the Arab world

In Cairo, protesters celebrate President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday.
In Cairo, protesters celebrate President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday. (Goran Tomasevic)
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
Sunday, February 13, 2011

Longtime Mideast advisers on how the Egyptian people lost their fear

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.

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