Sunday, February 6, 2011

Arab Revolt in Context

Americans can be forgiven for perplexity about the massive protests raging across the Arab world: the Boston Tea Party, the abolition movement, the women’s rights movement, and Bull Conner’s dogs threatening little black girls trying to go to school all seem to have occurred a long time ago. The Arab Revolt is all of these.

Three related questions may help to understand the big picture:

  1. What does “liberty” mean?
  2. What is the relationship between “liberty” and “national security?”
  3. How will the Arab revolt influence American liberty and national security?

1. Liberty.   
Forget the Arab world; think about a family with a domineering father. Suppose Dad decided who you could date, who you could marry, what you could read, when you could express your opinion, what you could study at college, where you would work, what party you could vote for? Imagine that Dad was a free man, free to make all the above decisions for himself. Would you describe your family as free?

How would you, in such a family, gain personal liberty? Would you somehow demonstrate your ability to handle freedom and bargain with Dad? Would you protest? Would you leave home? Most Arabs of course do not have all these choices vis-à-vis oppressive dictators: expressing an opinion can land you in jail, protesting can get you beaten by brutal police, Gazans are prohibited by Israel from leaving. The bottom line is that liberty is not “natural” but an achievement of human society at its very rare best, a goal to be pursued, a growth that survives only when nourished.

2. Liberty & National Security.
Some, usually those who have more money than they can spend and no intention of sharing any of it, make the argument that a trade-off exists between liberty and national security. It goes roughly like this: “If you sacrifice some of your (not ‘our’) liberty, then ‘we’ will protect you from ‘them.’” It is never quite clear why the “we”—e.g., Egyptian generals and secret police or Iranian mullahs who assert the right to pass judgment on the government and civil society or neo-cons who want to pass “patriot” acts to gain the power to watch what kind of books you check out of the library—actually need to circumscribe civil liberties in order to provide national security. The reason is that the whole argument is a cover for protecting something altogether different – not national security but elite privilege.

In Egypt this may be the ability of the elite to stifle a democracy that would instantly vote them out of power.

In Israel, it is increasingly the ability of the expansionist faction to suppress traditional Israeli democracy, as formerly exemplified by the Meretz Party and as currently exemplified by a long list of Israeli historians, peace activists, and journalists who defend traditional Israeli civil rights against an increasingly authoritarian ruling faction.

In the U.S., it includes protecting the ability of the financial elite to gamble investor funds and make a profit even when the investors lose their shirts…or get paid back by taxpayers as well as the ability of the military-industrial complex to make a profit selling weapons for wars that exploit the fear of terrorism but in fact provoke terrorism.

The case of Egypt illustrates a dangerous dynamic: repression by the elite in the false name of national security generates resentment leading to protest. The more the elite suppresses the protesters and refuses to listen to their grievances, the more likely it becomes that the population will turn to extremists. When moderation fails, violence or slavery are the only two choices that remain. And thus, the self-serving argument of the elite that liberty must be sacrificed for security turns out to be a false dichotomy. In truth, while liberty is a risky venture with no certain outcome, it opens the door to a stable, enduring security.

3. Arab liberty and U.S. national security. 
Liberty as the foundation for a stable national security supported by the whole population provides the link between Arab liberty and U.S. national security. Resting the fortress of U.S. national security on the foundation of hated right-wing Arab dictators and aggressive right-wing factions in Israel provides but a short-term expedient, and the longer such a strategy is pursued, the more repressive it must become to survive, thus making a catastrophic collapse ever more likely.

Rather than, in the Egyptian case, marginalizing the moderate (judging from their behavior for many years) Muslim Brotherhood as well as the mass of Egyptians who just want minimal civil rights, a wiser course for Americans interested in long-term, stable cooperation with Egypt would be to encourage all Egyptian groups to participate in a peaceful, open, democratic system. Let any that wins an election be put to the test of performance, with the world watching. The rising moderation of both Islamic parties and the military in Turkey, today probably the most democratic state in the Mideast (including Israel), exemplifies the promise of this strategy. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, provoked by short-sighted U.S. support for an increasingly repressive right-wing dictatorship by the Shah, exemplifies the failure of the elite’s false dichotomy between liberty and national security.

Liberty is a common good, stronger the more it is shared. King George denied this and provoked the American Revolution. With globalization and the Internet and al Jazeera, the principle of liberty as a common good is all the more true today.

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