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Winds of change in the Middle East

Despite the success of dissidents in Egypt, revolutions are dangerous and unpredictable events. The U.S. should help define the future.

February 27, 2011|By Kenneth M. Pollack

On Feb. 11, 1979, Islamic revolutionaries took power in Tehran. On Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorists launched their attacks on New York and Washington, killing nearly 3,000 Americans. On Feb. 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

That these things all occurred on the 11th of the month is coincidental, but the events themselves are not unrelated. One of the worst mistakes Americans have made over these three decades has been to overlook their common roots.

The Muslim Middle East sits on a vast reservoir of popular anger and frustration over the region's economic, social and political dysfunction. The same dissatisfaction that galvanized crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square also drove young Iranians to bring down the shah. And it also has aided the recruitment efforts of Bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists since the early 1980s.

We should not forget that Bin Laden's original and ultimate goal was to spark a revolution to overthrow the Saudi government, just as his deputy's, Ayman Zawahiri, was to overthrow Mubarak. Like many frustrated revolutionaries before them, they turned to terrorism only when they were unable to bring about the grand popular revolutions they sought.

Perhaps the worst mistake of the Bush administration's response to 9/11 was to make terrorism itself America's principal target. Terrorism was never more than a symptom of this dysfunction and despair, as were the internal conflicts that have convulsed Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt itself in the past two decades. Even Iran's so-called green movement today is another manifestation of the phenomenon.

The Bush administration's "freedom agenda" — misnamed, mishandled and quickly shunted aside though it was — at least deserves credit for finally recognizing the real source of America's problems in the Middle East. The great shame of George W. Bush's presidency is that the war on terrorism was not a smaller adjunct to that broader effort, rather than the other way around.

We have no one but ourselves to blame for misunderstanding the common sources of our problems all across the Muslim Middle East. The people of the region have hardly kept quiet about their grievances: unemployment, underemployment, massive gaps between rich and poor, callous and corrupt autocracies that did nothing to alleviate distress and much to exacerbate it. The United States got repeated wake-up calls, beginning with the collapse of the shah, but we never bothered to question our convenient insistence that the problems were discrete and manageable by repression and denial.

But the most important question is not why have we failed to understand the problems of the Middle East for so long, but rather what are we going to do about them now?

The Egyptian revolution is an earthquake. It has shaken the Middle East like no other event since the Iranian revolution. It has swept away old paradigms, old ways of understanding the region. It has sparked copycat revolts from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Algeria and perhaps to future spots unknown.

But how the Egyptian revolution defines the new Middle East is still an open question. A great many people will try to use it to impose their visions. It is a moment when the United States can and must enter the fray. It is vital that we take the lead in helping shape how Middle Easterners see the Egyptian revolution.

It is also an opportunity for the United States to overcome our past mistakes, to recognize the real grievances of the people of the region and to reexamine their conflicts and our role in them. The Egyptian revolution and the regional unrest that followed have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of Muslim Middle Easterners want to live in modernizing, democratizing, developing nations. They want prosperity, they want pluralism and they want the better lives that we in the West enjoy.

The struggle in the new Middle East must be defined as one between nations that are moving in the right direction and nations that are not; between those that are embracing economic liberalization, educational reform, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties, and those that are not. Viewed through this prism, the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority are clearly in one camp. Iran and Syria — the region's two most authoritarian regimes and America's two greatest remaining adversaries there — are in the other.

The other countries of the region will have to choose between a process of reform that embraces progress or repression. This latter course probably will be even harder for governments to maintain as their own people see what is happening in Egypt and elsewhere.

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