History's Shifting Sands

Suddenly, it is the young activists of Tahrir who are the example for the world, while the great powers seem mired in old thinking and outdated systems.
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The revolutions sweeping the Arab world indicate a tectonic shift in the global balance of people power.

For decades, even centuries, the peoples of the Arab world have been told by Europeans and later Americans that their societies were stagnant and backward. According to Lord Cromer, Viceroy and author of the 1908 pseudo-history Modern Egypt, their progress was "arrested" by the very fact of their being Muslim, by virtue of which their minds were as "strange" to that of a modern Western man "as would be the mind of an inhabitant of Saturn."

The only hope of reshaping their minds towards a more earthly disposition was to accept Western tutelage, supervision, and even rule "until such time as they [we]re able to stand alone," in the words of the League of Nations' Mandate. Whether it was Napoleon claiming fraternité with Egyptians in fin-de-18e-siècle Cairo or George W. Bush claiming similar amity with Iraqis two centuries later, the message, and the means of delivering it, have been consistent.

Ever since al-Jabarti, the great Egyptian chronicler of the French invasion of Egypt, brilliantly dissected Napoleon's epistle to Egyptians, the peoples of the Middle East have seen through the Western protestations of benevolence and altruism to the naked self-interest that has always laid at the heart of great power politics. But the hypocrisy behind Western policies never stopped millions of people across the region from admiring and fighting for the ideals of freedom, progress and democracy they promised.

Even with the rise of a swaggeringly belligerent American foreign policy after September 11 on the one hand, and of China as a viable economic alternative to US global dominance on the other, the United States' melting pot democracy and seemingly endless potential for renewal and growth offered a model for the future.

Trading Places

But something has changed. An epochal shift of historical momentum has occurred, whose implications have yet to be imagined, never mind assessed. In the space of a month, the intellectual, political and ideological center of gravity in the world has shifted from the far West (America) and far East (China, whose unchecked growth and continued political oppression are clearly not a model for the region) back to the Middle -- to Egypt, the mother of all civilization, and other young societies across the Middle East and North Africa.

Standing amidst hundreds of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir Square seizing control of their destiny it suddenly seemed that our own leaders have become, if not quite pharaohs, then mamluks, more concerned with satisfying their greed for wealth and power than with bringing their countries together to achieve measure of progress and modernity in the new century. Nor does China, which has offered its model of state-led authoritarian capitalist development coupled with social liberalization as an alternative to the developing world, seem like a desirable option to the people risking death for democracy in the streets of capitals across the Arab world and Iran.

Instead, Egyptians, Tunisians and other peoples of the region fighting for revolutionary political and economic change have, without warning, leapfrogged over the United States and China and grabbed history's reins. Suddenly, it is the young activists of Tahrir who are the example for the world, while the great powers seem mired in old thinking and outdated systems. From the perspective of "independence" squares across the region, the United States looks ideologically stagnant and even backwards, filled with irrational people and political and economic elites incapable of conceiving of changes that are so obvious to the rest of the world.

Foundations Sinking into the Sands?

Although she likely didn't intend it, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Arab leaders in early January that they must "reform" lest their their systems "sink in the sand," her words were as relevant in Washington as they were in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo or Sanaa. But Americans -- the people as much as their leaders -- are so busy dismantling the social, political and economic foundations of their former greatness that they are unable to see how much they have become like the stereotype of the traditional Middle Eastern society that for so long was used to justify, alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) supporting authoritarian leaders or imposing foreign rule.

A well-known Egyptian labor organizer, Kamal Abbas, made a video telling Americans from Tahrir that "we and all the people of the world stand on your side and give you our full support." It's a good thing, because it's clear Americans need all the support they can get. "I want you to know," he continued, "that no power can challenge the will of the people when they believe in their rights. When they raise their voices loud and clear and struggle against exploitation."

Aren't such lines supposed to be uttered by American presidents instead of Egyptian union activists?

Similarly, in Morocco activists made a video before their own "day of rage" where they explained why they were taking to the streets. Among the reasons, "because I want a free and equal Morocco for all citizens," "so that all Moroccans will be equal," so that education and health care "will be accessible to everyone, not only the rich," in order that "labor rights will be respected and exploitation put to an end," and to "hold accountable those who ruined this country."

Can one even imagine millions of Americans taking to the streets in a day of rage to demand such rights?

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