Listen to the Arab Street

Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

The United States is celebrating the 82nd birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr, the legendary black civil rights champion and a true visionary and reformer. Considered America’s answer to Gandhi, King has inspired generations of Americans, including President Barack Obama, and others around the world, with his liberating vision. His famous words like “I have a dream” and his soaring rhetoric have become so common in the speeches of US politicians, including those of Obama, and others around the world that we seldom realize the extent of his influence beyond America’s shores.

If African Americans and other minorities are today able to go to same schools and churches and live and vote in dignity as their white counterparts, the credit largely goes to the revolution sparked by the savant called King. Indeed, without his sacrifices, White House today wouldn’t have a black president with a Muslim father. So the Americans have enough reasons to remember and celebrate the charismatic civil rights champion.

But would King be equally proud of his nation? America may be the land of the free and greatest democracy for its people, but is it promoting the same freedom and democracy beyond its borders? Far from it. No matter what Uncle Sam would have you believe, America in its policies and actions remains the biggest supporter of oppression, injustice and tyrants and tin pot dictators of all kinds and sizes.

King warned injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And why King alone? America’s founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin to Abe Lincoln, subscribed to the same noble ideals and values such as freedom, human rights and justice and equality for all men. But America has always supported men who trample on these very values and beliefs. 

Ben Ali is not the first despot to have enjoyed total and absolute power for the quarter of a century with the blessings of Uncle Sam. And he will not be the last one. After Ben Ali fled Tunisia, driven out by unprecedented popular protests, the self-styled champion of democracy woke up to salute the “brave and determined struggle for the universal rights" and "the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people."

The White House called on the Tunisian government "to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people"! Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking in Doha warned of regimes whose “foundations are sinking in sand.”

Who created, perpetuated and protected these regimes all these years though? In fact, even as the Tunisians were braving the regime’s bullets and tanks over the past couple of weeks, Madam Secretary was going around the Middle East on yet another Israel-inspired mission, warning the Arabs for a millionth time about the clear and present danger of Iran’s mythical, non-existent nukes.

Not a word about Mohamed Bouazizi, who torched himself in protest against poverty and unemployment, sparking this revolution. Or about millions of other young men who have brought down one of the most powerful, ruthless and stable regimes in the region like a house of cards with their democratic protests. While Tunisia turned into a large Russian gulag with most of its resident being forced to spy on each other, Washington praised the regime for its “stability, secularism and liberal market policies.”

In the name of secularism and fighting “Islamic terrorism,” the regime crushed every voice of dissent and independence. In fact, Tunisia is a classic, text book model of tyranny in the Middle East: Infinitely obedient and pliable to the West and its market forces while crushing its own people’s legitimate rights and spirit of freedom. 

And it is not just Tunisia. Next door in Algeria, when the Islamists swept a democratic election considered free and fair by Western observers in the 1990s, they were not just denied power, they were thrown behind the bars and persecuted, sparking a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people. All this was of course done with the active support and cooperation of the democratic West. 

In the neighboring land of Nile, opposition simply doesn’t exist. It’s banned from taking part in the carefully choreographed elections in the most populous and culturally rich Arab country. Yet the country remains the biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel.

In fact, the whole of Maghreb — and beyond – is a veritable paradise for the capitalist West even as its people reel under poverty, corruption and the vilest form of tyranny known to man. This is a black hole where notions like democracy, freedom, human rights, free elections and justice do not exist. Things that are taken for granted by the rest of the world today.

Is it a coincidence that in the 21st century, this remains the only region in the whole wide world that is yet to experience these simple things – basics about which the Americans have long preached to the Arabs and Muslims yet never allowed them to make the same choices?

Colonialism and imperialism may have ended for much of the world in the last century of the last millennium. However, it still remains a reality in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Even though our colonial masters have departed, their legacy, policies and clout remain in some form or the other in this part of the world, ruling by proxy. It’s no coincidence that most men in power for decades today once served in uniform in colonial armies.

This is why even when the West lectures the Arabs and Muslims on the virtues of democracy and free elections, it doesn’t mean it really desires the same for them. As Robert Fisk says, in the Arab world, we (West) want law and order and stability and we will get it. “It’s the same old problem for us in the West. We mouth the word "democracy" and we are all for fair elections – providing the Arabs vote for whom we want them to vote for.”

This is why from Palestine to Pakistan, dictators are always chosen over democrats. This suits the West and their long term geopolitical interests. Besides, unlike their tried and test dictators, democrats are troublesome and ask too many inconvenient questions.

However, what happened in Tunisia has changed everything. Totally unarmed protesters fearlessly facing down the dictator’s big guns. When was the last time you saw something like this in the Arab world? The people of Tunisia have spoken and Arabs and Muslims everywhere are listening. More important, by throwing out Ben Ali, they have not just sent a loud and clear message to tyrants everywhere, they have also served an ultimatum to their Western masters. The empire’s game is up.

Change has finally come to the Middle East with Tunisia’s Jasmin revolution. And if this can happen in the friendly, secure and stable Tunisia, it can happen anywhere. The US and its friends and allies would ignore this message from the Arab street at their own peril.  As Martin Luther King warned, one who condones evil is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.  And no one can stop an idea whose time has come.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based writer who has written extensively on the Middle East and South Asia. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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