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Annelle Sheline

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No Clash of Civilizations Here

Posted: 03/01/11 12:52 AM ET

The past few weeks saw a barrage of previously ludicrous headlines:

"Constitutional Amendments Finalized in Egypt"

"Yemen's President Agrees to Term Limits"

"Algeria's 19 Year State of Emergency to End"

"Jon Stewart: I accept your apology Mr. Rumsfeld"

Rummie must have been in a good mood -- his publisher managed to release his autobiography Known and Unknown in time for his big "I told you so" moment in the Middle East.

Supporters of the Bush White House have been applauding what they see as the results of his "Freedom Agenda" in the Middle East.

More on the neocons' largely undeserved gloating in a moment, for now we're back to reality, where the days of euphoric possibility seem to have reverted to familiar despotism as leaders in Bahrain, Libya and Iran brutally suppress dissent.

Here in America we vacillate between cheering for whom we know instinctively are the "good guys" -- the people standing up to tanks and fire hoses -- and prognosticating about how the new order will look for us. Ok, we were on the bad guys' side all along, but we were covertly funding democratization initiatives, right?

We watch wistfully, hungry to experience the passion we see on our TV and computer screens.
Knowing that I lived in Egypt, friends have asked me since January 25 whether I thought that anything like the Egyptian revolution could happen in our country. I have felt surprised: "Do you really feel that our political system is so dysfunctional and corrupt that the only way to free our society is a revolution?" (Don't answer that Tea Partiers).

Sorry guys, but our system was supposed to have purged itself of the need for revolution over two centuries ago. And seriously, would we really want all that unrest? The closest we have come is the near-government shutdown, and even that felt too scary.

So no, as long as Governor Walker doesn't criminalize unions, we don't actually want revolution, but we do want to be involved. If we can't experience that sense of purpose and sacrifice ourselves, can we at least have some credit?

A woman called in to a radio station in North Carolina just after Mubarak stepped down, "Well, we invented democracy, right? Shouldn't we help them with it?"

Although I'm sure she meant well, it seems that the oxymoronic quality of "exporting democracy" did not come across with sufficient clarity in Iraq. Democracy is, by definition, the rule by the people. "Imposing" or "implementing" democracy is antithetical to what self-rule means. Sorry Rummie, sorry Dubya.

The idea of a limited democracy, or one in which the people are not in fact allowed to practice self determination in their execution of free and fair elections, produces a non-democratic result, (which already threatens Egypt's political transformation by excluding the Muslim Brotherhood from putting forward a presidential candidate).

Slavoj Zizek put it best. Speaking with Tariq Ramadan (grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan Al Banna), on Al Jazeera English, the Slovenian philosopher argued with typically arresting ardor, that "They [in Tunisia and Egypt] understand democracy better than we do in the West".

"Where we are fighting a tyrant... we are immediately in solidarity with each other. That's how you build universal solidarity... It's the struggle for freedom. Here we have direct proof a) that freedom is universal and b) especially proof against that cynical idea, somehow Muslim crowds prefer religiously fundamentalist dictatorship, whatever. No! What happened in Tunisia, what happens now in Egypt, it's precisely this universal revolution for dignity, human rights, economic justice... No clash of civilizations... There is no mis-communication here."

If Egypt and Tunisia (and Yemen and Bahrain and Libya) have lessons to teach us about democracy, where then does America come in? Given the millions of dollars the U.S. has invested in democracy initiatives across the Middle East, even as we supported their authoritarian rulers, aren't we partially responsible for the events now unfolding?

Well, not really, no.

Let's go back to the neocons... although the Bush era did see many efforts at democracy promotion, the past two years saw a sharp drop in that funding. The long awaited movement that finally toppled Mubarak was not the result of democratization measures. Rather, it was compounded by frustration at sham parliamentary elections in November and rampant inflation: kerosene on a smoldering fire of inflated expectations based on Egypt's year on year GDP growth, which resulted from economic development policies, such as Mubarak's "business oriented cabinet", appointed in 2006.

It was Egypt's strong economic prospects that the White House had encouraged under Obama's direction, including Egypt's role last summer as the poster child for the Muslim Entrepreneurship Summit.
In his speech in Cairo in 2009, Obama promised a new era in American relations with the Middle East. This effectively meant less meddling in politics, more support for economic reforms.

So, other than supporting economic development, the United States had very little to do with Egypt's revolution, or Tunisia's. The U.S. continues to support the governments of Bahrain, (home of the strategically crucial 5th fleet), Yemen (where President Saleh receives $150 million a year to fight Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and Saudi Arabia (which has obligingly boosted oil to counterbalance falling Libyan production).

Yet real change -- and real democracy -- in parts of the Middle East is happening. But currently wobbly dominoes will only fall if there is real change in Washington. Which may not be so impossible either...

Last week, Under Secretary for Defense Ashton Carter addressed the Center for New American Security with a talk "Doing More Without More". Despite anxious questions from audience members, Carter defended the need to reduce the yearly double digit growth in spending percentages that have characterized the defense budget since 9/11. When the Pentagon realizes that spending reform is necessary, you know things are tight; Bush's wars have finally caught up to their advocates.

We may not have long to wait before that still impossible headline, "US slashes defense spending, reduces foreign military presence, balances budget".

But will a reduced American fingerprint abroad really be such a bad thing?
Too late, it's already happening. But in a world of universal democracy, America the Global Policeman would not be necessary. The paradigm of "us versus them" that produced the 9/11, the War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations would be rendered obsolete.

 

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