The Sleepers Have Awakened

By Basil Abdelkarim

As an unprecedented wave of protests swept across the Arab world, United States Vice President Joe Biden shared these illuminating thoughts with NewsHour host Jim Lehrer regarding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose near 30-year pharaonic reign hangs by a thread: 

“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.” 

The quote is instructive, for it encapsulates half a century of American foreign policy towards the Middle East in a few inelegant sentences, providing the self serving, shameful rationale for America’s decades-long support of corrupt Arab regimes– Oh rulers of the Arab world, do America’s bidding, serve Western geopolitical interests, play nice with Israel, and you may deal with your people as you see fit. No one understood this better than Hosni Mubarak, and he has years of violent political suppression, intimidation, torture, media persecution, economic corruption, nepotism, and overbearing arrogance to prove it.

Never mind the belated rhetoric about democracy and reform emanating from Washington and other Western capitals. That’s all part of the game of “catch up”, the interest and ego-driven fear of ending up on the wrong side of history-in-the-making. Besides, one can’t simply erase 30 years of unquestioned, uncritical support for Mubarak (to say nothing of the billions of dollars in military aid that propped up his regime) with a few salient words about democracy now that the game is up. Better late than never, one supposes.

What world leaders expect from Egypt is “stability”, that amorphous, overblown term that in the Egyptian context boils down to a few essential principles: keep the Suez open, let the oil flow, support the Euro-American coalition against Iraq, Iran, or whatever nation has been designated the latest regional Hitler, keep a lid on the “Islamists”, and of course, enforce the peace treaty with Israel.  It’s really that simple.

For decades, the out of touch rulers of the Arab world (the kings, presidents, emirs, and generals alike) have resided in a fantasy world of their own construction, oblivious to the changes taking shape around them, indifferent to the anger fomenting on the street. But what does it say about our own leaders in Washington that they steadfastly refuse to call a spade a spade? If a former Egyptian air force chief of staff (Mubarak) who has clung to power for more than a quarter century, operating under perpetual martial law, cannot be characterized as a dictator, then what value does the term even hold? What more can be said about a valued American ally who remains in office until the ripe old age of 82, stifling all opposition in series of sham elections while he grooms his slick son as heir to the throne? Is he not worthy of the opprobrium of our leaders?  Or shall we excuse him because he’s been “very responsible”, in the words of Vice President Biden?

The take home message is clear. Our friends are never dictators, except when they stop being our friends or stop being useful. Just ask the corpse of Saddam Hussein, or the prisoner formerly known as President Manuel Noriega.

Last week, after days of dramatic protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally took to the airwaves and sacked his powerless cabinet. Omar Suleiman was named Mubarak’s first ever Vice President. The bizarre promotion of the Egyptian intelligence chief, the head spook in a police state, a man whose resume (naturally) includes a close working relationship with Israel, appears the perfect step to reassure Western backers of the Egyptian regime. What this move accomplishes for the Egyptian people, who singlehandedly sent the dreaded, brutal secret police packing, is anyone’s guess. Far from appeased, the emboldened Egyptian demonstrators dug in their heels at Mubarak’s transparent reshuffling of the deck. And so the revolt continues.

Meanwhile in the West, the so-called experts and arm chair television analysts view the Arab demonstrations with a potent mixture of fascination and apprehension, scrambling to define a movement and a moment in time they can barely understand. “These aren’t men with beards,” declares one expert on CNN, and one can almost hear the relief in his voice. But where are the Muslims, they wonder?

Even now we can see it. “Who Lost Egypt?” the headlines will demand, as if Egypt ever belonged to them, when they really should be asking “Why Was Egypt Lost?”, or, better yet, “How Did Egyptians Find Themselves?”. Nevertheless, if the protests succeed in ousting Mubarak, this question may soon dominate the superficial, clichéd media analysis, where politics is a zero-sum game and the victory of the Egyptian people means a setback to the Empire. They asked this question, too, when the Shah of Iran fell in 1979. 

Yet as the electrifying Arab protests metastasize from one Arab capital to the next, from one large Egyptian city to another, I find myself thinking not of Iran, but of author Frank Herbert and his 1965 Sci-Fi epic, Dune. It seems an odd point of reference, but good fiction often reveals interesting truths about the world. In Dune, Herbert chronicles the sweeping tale of the desert world of Arrakis, a barren planet that boasts a precious resource called Spice (think oil) coveted by royal families and vast business interests alike (sound familiar?). The remarkable saga culminates in a massive popular uprising (uh-oh…) which sees the indigenous, desert-dwelling population of Arrakis reclaim their destiny, bringing a corrupt Empire to its knees. “He who controls the Spice, controls the universe,” and one can’t help but wonder if we are witnessing the earthly version of this prescient space opera play out on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Amman, and Sanaa. Can the Arab nations of the Gulf, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, be far behind? 

Far too long, the disenfranchised masses of the Arab world, 350 million strong, have slept while their crooked rulers and their pampered offspring accumulated more wealth and ever more power at their expense. Precious natural resources were drained. Wealth was stashed away in European and American banks and foreign real estate while crushing poverty and skyrocketing unemployment gripped the poorer Arab countries. The new rich and their allies in governments across the region reveled in their good fortune, indulging in bacchanalian excess even as their respective regimes claimed the mantle of piety. Change was promised, time and again, but never delivered. So the Arab people slept while economic and political progress swept across the globe, while freedom popped up in strange corners of the world, in places no one could have imagined. Empires crumbled, despots toppled, and some people enjoyed new found freedoms.  But for the Arabs, time stood still.

Today in the street, while world leaders characteristically hedge their bets, the overwhelmingly young people of the Arab world dream of and demonstrate for a future that belongs to them and not to the corrupt autocrats and their hand-chosen successors. The smothering blanket of fear has evaporated.  The sleepers have awakened.

– Basil Abdelkarim contributed this article to

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