Time to ditch the Arab stereotype

The revolutionary spirit sweeping the Middle East has provoked as much fear as joy in the West. Der Standard questions why is it that we doubt that Arabs have the will or the ability to be the masters of their own destiny.

Published on 4 February 2011 at 15:50

These last days, like so many others, I’ve been spending hours watching Al-Jazeera, watching history being written in real time. The opposition movement in Egypt, following the democratic revolution in Tunisia, is carrying us through the second act of the astonishing “Arab Spring”. Or the “1989 of the Arabs”.

It is both gripping and inspiring. Hardly any of us had citizen revolutions in major Arab countries on our radar screens. The populations of those countries have been described as frustrated and apathetic, easily manipulated by autocrats and Islamists. And now this. The young generation in the cities is not so very different from students in the West. They have the same desires. And thanks to the Internet they’re actually living in the same orbit.

Perhaps the Internet and social media are having a much more dramatic impact on the general consciousness than we have assumed till now. The so-called experts really know nothing, because there has been too much flux in the past one or two years, and learned expertise often falls back on a long history – which may have been dramatically overtaken by recent social modernisation processes without the “experts” having even noticed.

‘The instability doesn’t seem to bother the Arabs’

What surprises me – no, what really shocks me, what I can really get worked up about – is the mood in quite a few quarters. It sounds like this: “For God’s sake, this instability is dangerous… Doesn’t seem to bother the Arabs though, does it, huh?… Probably just going to land them with a mullah dictatorship!… The secular autocrats were always pretty comfortable!”

This is as morally depraved as if in 1989 one would have advised Václav Havel, Jens Reich [civil rights activist in the tottering GDR] and the many citizens who had had enough of their rotten regime to please continue bowing down to Honecker, Husak and the other grey-faced men. After all, one really couldn’t tell what might come out of all that insurrection – who knows, maybe even a reunified Germany with a taste for war.

Such an attitude shows not just a certain squalor, it reveals a total disinterest in the true situation. Anyone who looks even casually into the contemporary Arab civil rights movement quickly grasps that the Islamists are playing a much smaller role than one might assume.

Protests caught Islamists by surprise

The people want democracy and freedom, not mullahs. Indeed, some evidence even suggests that the influence of the Islamists, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has waned.

Things are dramatically on the move, and this is a historic opportunity. People change when they breathe in their first freedom. And that also means, quite simply, that no one knows how it will play out. We’re now watching an urban middle class sweep away the autocrats. Free elections may lead only to disillusionment. Who can say what makes the farmers in the Nile Delta tick? No one. It is a huge opportunity.

To be sure, great opportunities can fall through. But just because failure may lie ahead, should one really cling to stability for the sake of it? Isn’t that always the argument that the dictators trot out?

What our sceptical grouch is lacking is political imagination, a sense of what’s possible. But this is not only a simple consequence of a lack of imagination; it also has a racist core. It goes like this: “Democracy among the Arabs? Never works. They prefer autocrats.” How appalling all that is.

‘Democracy is a step into the unknown’

When societies, when free citizens take their affairs in hand and seek out new laws, then of course it’s always a step into the unknown. And the unknown comes with risks. It has always been so down through history, but without taking risks there would never have been progress, and democracy would never have got a foothold anywhere.

The objection that democracy is dangerous is as old as the quest for human freedom. It’s always brought up by those who cling to stability. If our ancestors had listened to them we would still be living in serfdom, muzzled by the clergy, and cowering under the lash of the princes.


Radical change is something we know how to do

Faced with events that have shaken the Arab world, European reactions have been marked by “a prudent silence from conservative politicians” and “a certain scepticism vis-à-vis a change coming from outside,” notes Fernando Vallespín in El País. The editorialist highlights the differences between the turmoil that washed over the southern shores of the Mediterranean and the recent protests in Europe: “While down there the protests are demanding what the people do not yet have – freedom and economic development – the demand here is to keep what has been won.” This attitude, says Vallespín, explains the timid support that Europeans seem to give “to those who are not satisfied with what they have and who lay claims to what we have always believed in ourselves.” This timidity is all the more striking in that “Europe has no influence on the outcome of a series of events that are crucial to its future […],” notes Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. Yet, says the British historian, “no one has more experience than the Europeans in difficult transitions from dictatorship to democracy. No other region has as many instruments at its disposal to affect developments in the Middle East The US may have special relationships with the Egyptian military and Arab ruling families, but Europe has more trade, gives a lot of aid, and has a thick web of cultural and person-to-person ties across what the Romans called Mare Nostrum, our sea.[… ]” Europe is where most young Arabs want to visit, to study and to work. “Their cousins are already here.” The changes underway are “both a problem and an opportunity. That’s why, suggests Garton Ash, “the EU needs to act quickly, flexibly, with courage and imagination – qualities not usually associated with the Union.” If indeed the Arab revolts succeed, “young Arabs will circulate across the Mediterranean, contributing to European economies” and paying into the pensions of a rapidly aging population. If they fail and the Islamists were to take power, “then heaven help us all.” If this is not a vital European interest, what is?

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