The U.S. and the Arabs: so similar, yet so democratically different

Special to The Daily Star

Popular beliefs and perceptions aside, Arabs and Americans have much more in common than they like to think. Selective historical memories and a growing sense of insecurity are only two glaring examples in this regard.

Just consider the way Arabs talk about Saddam Hussein these days. Consider the way they treat his surviving family members, his daughter Raghad for instance. Her face has recently been splashed on the covers and pages of many society magazines. Reading these publications, one is tempted to imagine that the mad tyrant was actually a national hero who did many great things for Iraqis and Arabs in general. 

On the other hand, listening to the negative ways Americans and their officials talk about Saddam today, it becomes very difficult to forget how Washington once supported the former Baath regime in its bloody war against neighboring Iran and, in fact, at one time considered Saddam a precious and useful ally. For both Arabs and Americans, it seems, immediate concerns and interests weigh much more heavily than historical facts and realities.

A second point of similarity between Arabs and Americans is their constant preoccupation with their standing in the world. Americans eagerly want to preserve their hard-earned position as the world’s only remaining superpower. Meanwhile, Arabs are desperately hoping to get out of the hole they have dug for themselves thanks to decades of incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, while they scarcely made a dent in America’s economic and political standing, managed nonetheless to hurt its prestige and undermine its sense of security. This development helped radicalize popular sentiment and created fertile ground for the adoption of certain extremist measures and policies, such as the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war and its passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

The “Arab Sept. 11,” at least in terms of the psychological impact involved, took place somewhat earlier than the one in the U.S. It occurred in 2000, with the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the onset of the current Palestinian intifada. This violent turnaround in Arab-Israeli fortunes was watched throughout the Middle East thanks to a variety of new satellite television networks, helping expose Arab peoples to the increasing impotence of their regimes. The broadcasts also fueled popular feelings of anger and dismay toward the perceived biased policies of the U.S. with regard to the Palestinians.

The endemic corruption, inefficiency and backwardness of their societies made many Arabs grow increasingly disillusioned with their regimes and their insincere promises of reform. The stage was thus set for the emergence of alternative actors who seemed more capable of redressing the perceived injustices. Hence the growing sympathy for Islamists and terrorists. For no matter how nihilistic and sadistic these new actors were, they, at least, appeared to be “doing something.” For people whose sense of pride and security have been seriously undermined, the ability to maintain an appearance of active involvement can go a long way in satisfying certain primordial longings, regardless of realities on the ground.

Maintaining such an appearance is exactly what the Bush administration also seems to be achieving in its, otherwise, disastrous involvement in Iraq.

Arabs and Americans are obviously not identical in all respects. There is at least one major difference that we must identify: the strength of American democratic institutions. For although these institutions cannot prevent major mistakes in America’s domestic and foreign policies, they do provide a mechanism for rectifying them. The absence of such institutions in the Arab world, on the other hand, and the continuing lack of appreciation for democratic values at the grassroots level, mean that once a wrong choice is made, reversing it becomes quite difficult, not to mention time-consuming.

So, while Americans are currently questioning the wisdom of their actions during the last three years, a process that might culminate in the choice of a new president in the coming election, the ongoing Arab debate on reform is still in an embryonic phase. That is, it still lacks the necessary resonance at the level of Arab governments and societies to produce much-needed change and stem the rising tide of extremism.

Arab regimes might be willing to make general declarations on reform, as they did at the last Arab League summit in Tunisia. In reality, however, they remain too corrupt and inept to carry out serious reform. Arab civil society, therefore, is the only hope left for change. The Americans should do all they can to support it. For if the events of Sept. 11 taught us anything, it is that the consequences of the current implosion in the Arab world will be borne by all.

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.