Arindam Chaudhuri
[February, 2011]

The kind of double standards practiced by America for decades, even as it arrogantly talks about democracy and preaches the virtues of free speech, dissent and human rights to the world from a pulpit, is a shame to say the least. The fact is, be it Latin America, Asia or Africa, America has always supported brutal dictators who have tortured and killed their own citizens in the most horrific manner. Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua and Bolivia are classic examples from Latin America. South Korea and Indonesia were classic examples in Asia; and Pakistan, of course, is the ultimate showcase of American double standards. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was the foe, American strategic cowboys used to argue that propping up unsavory dictators in strategic pockets was a necessary evil because America had to stop the march of Communism, which apparently was supposed to be far worse when it came to freedom, free speech, dissent and human rights. After the Soviet Union disappeared and Communism was no longer the enemy it was for decades, many had hoped that America would actually help other nations move away from dictatorships and authoritarian regimes to democracies. Sadly, those hopes were belied and crushed when America started citing the Global War on Terror as an excuse to encourage and prop up nasty dictators. Of course, most of these dictators happen to be now in the Arab world whose oil reserves are the real reasons for American interest rather than the mumbo jumbo and nonsense double speak about democracy and human rights.

Many readers of this magazine were not born in 1979 when the first people’s movement swept across a country in West Asia – better known by American strategic cowboys as the Middle East. I am talking about Iran, the country that America is trying very hard to isolate, punish and even pulverize if given half a chance. For decades prior to 1979, the ruler of Iran – the Shah – was a staunch ally of America, as well as of Israel. In fact, the Americans had installed the reign of the Shahs in Iran by happily encouraging a coup against a popular and democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, because that man had refused to bow down to the diktats of Uncle Sam. In comparison, the Shahs were deeply unpopular, extremely authoritarian and ruled Iran ruthlessly with an iron fist – using torture, detention and even murder by its secret service to smother dissent. All of a sudden in 1978, America was caught napping as popular protests by citizens swept through the cities of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini came back from exile and the Shah had to flee Iran in disgrace as the country became an Islamic Republic. Since then, the “staunch ally” Iran has become an implacable enemy of America.

There was a sense of ironic déjà vu as I read with excitement about citizens in Tunisia rising in popular revolt and throwing out the dictator – a staunch American ally who ruled that country ruthlessly for more than two decades. That sense was reinforced when reports started pouring in from other Arab nations about citizens marching on the streets demanding that their hated dictators give up power to the people. Egypt has become a symbol and icon of the suppressed aspirations of millions of Arabs finally finding an outlet. The President Hosni Mubarak – again an American plant – has ruled Egypt like a classic dictator for more than 30 years and. Mubarak was in the process of trying to install his son as the next ruler when the sudden wave of protests engulfed his country. More than the people’s revolt in Tunisia – which actually opened the doors and the floodgates for citizens in other Arab nations – it is Egypt which is causing more sleepless nights in Washington. As of now, Egypt, to use that familiar cliché again, is a staunch ally of America and even a de facto ally of Israel. It is the only major country in the Arab world to have formally diplomatic as well as outwardly cordial relations with Israel. It is also the acknowledged leading nation and leader of the Arab world. What happens in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria has a huge impact on the rest of the Arab world. Of course, citizens in Arab nations have been watching in helplessness, frustration and rage till now as Egypt repeatedly winked at the atrocities committed by Israeli troops against innocent Palestinians in the name of fighting terror. Cables released by WikiLeaks also show that the United States has had no illusions about the regime. Washington and its allies now stand thoroughly exposed for using aid of over $2 billion a year and silence over internal repression to turn Cairo into a crucial agent of their regional policy, particularly in suppressing demands for justice for the Palestinians. The Egyptian people's uprising is showing the world that this highly prized Western ally is utterly devoid of legitimacy. And without doubt, that message will echo through every other dictatorship in the region.

As of right now, a nightmare is haunting Tel Aviv and Washington over the nature of the regime that will take over eventually in Egypt. The best case scenario for the strategic and foreign policy cowboys in America and Israel is a situation in which Egypt evolves from a strong arm dictatorship to a country ruled by a moderate Islamic party like in Turkey. Incidentally, Turkey is yet another staunch ally of America and Israel in that region of the world awash with oil, which is increasingly taking a stand that goes against the stated strategic interests of America and Israel. In the recent past, Turkey even sent a ship on a humanitarian mission to help Palestinians whose life had become a living hell because of a blockade imposed by Israel. That ship was attacked and stormed by Israeli troops, killing Turkish as well as American citizens who were going to Palestine on a mission of peace and empathy. No wonder, relations between Turkey and Israel have soured dramatically after the event and many have even started nursing fond hopes that an ‘Islamic’ Turkey will become the new leader against an Imperial America and its ally Israel. Egypt becoming another Turkey will surely become a headache. But it will be a nightmare if the country falls into the hands of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood – the organization that gave the Al Qaeda number two Al-Zawahari to the world – take control of the country and emerge as another Iran, implacably hostile to America and Israel. And don’t think for a moment that such a situation will never come to pass. Who had ever dreamt even in 1978 of Iran becoming what it is now in 2011?

No one had thought that citizens of the Arab world, suppressed for so long and denied both political and economic opportunities, would be in a position to rise in revolt against the dictators. But Tunisia showed the way and a firestorm is sweeping across the Arab world. In fact, many analysts are calling this the ‘Soviet Union’ moment for America as history turns full circle in a wickedly ironical way. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it was at the peak of its military might – an undisputed and arrogant Imperial power that nurtured, nourished and supported the assorted dictators who ran Communist paradises in East Europe. But Afghanistan became a symbol of the limits of Soviet power. It is a known fact that the fiasco in Afghanistan triggered events that led to virtually all dictators being ousted in East Europe and even the Soviet Union eventually disintegrating. Now, America has invaded Iraq and killed hundreds of thousands in a brutal manner using whimsical after whimsical excuse. And it is fighting a war against terrorism in Afghanistan that seems to kill more innocent civilians than actual terrorists. What has started in Tunisia could become the bellwether for America facing its Soviet moment in the Arab world. For too long, it has propped up dictators even as it preached the virtues of democracy and human rights. And now, the people of the Arab world are finally saying enough is enough. The multi-billion dollar question is: will America and Israel accept that it is inevitable for new regimes to emerge in the Arab world, those which would be no longer staunch allies and may actually take stands that would go against the strategic interests of America and Israel? If US and Israel don’t accept the inevitable and instead try once again to stifle the genuine aspirations of the Arab people, there is little doubt that America would earn the undying hatred and enmity of Arabs on the street.

There is a lesson here for India too. In past, by refusing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, India lost a huge amount of goodwill in the Arab and the Muslim world that Pakistan exploited brilliantly. Now, the pendulum is swinging the other way and India is taking a public stance against Iran just because the new strategic partner America is pressurizing it to do so. If India needs to earn brownie points in the global image race, there’s no better a chance than now. India must openly support the process that will throw out the dictators of the Arab world – sooner or later. If not, it would have lost many friends and friendships in the Arab world when new regimes inevitably take over.

To me, the uprising in Cairo is nothing short of a civil revolution! And it has the potential to not only transform the political scenario of the Middle East region but also every other region wherein anarchy and dictatorship have been the mainstays! Right now, for example, China's 457 million Internet users (and 180 million bloggers) can no longer use the Chinese word for "Egypt" in microblogs or search engines. Why is China worried about controlling the usage of the word ‘Egypt’ on the net? The government's goal is to pre-empt any contagion effect that popular uprisings against autocracy in the Middle East might have in China, which might inspire the country's ranks of discontented! Although India might not have gone to the extent of China, but our national media too – most certainly in silent conspiracy with the government’s wishes – had been conspicuously silent over the entire issue for a good 10 days. Even now, it is not giving the kind of importance that it should be to the behemoth socio-political upheaval in progress. On the other hand, if we were to benchmark media’s ideal role, then one should be looking up to the Arabic satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, which has been giving rock solid support to people's causes, inspiring Tunisia's brave people who ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, and also going the full distance to support Egyptians. In fact, one needs to admire the overall influential role played by Al Jazeera – the standout voice of aggressive, independent journalism in the Arab world – in channeling popular discontent through the region. Egypt seems to have already shut down the operations of Al-Jazeera – blaming it for encouraging the country's uprising – clearly demonstrating that the repressive powers of the central government are still functioning.

What is important now is how Tunisia’s revolution and Egypt’s uprising are interpreted and implemented, within the country and outside it. Ben Ali’s fall may prove to be an isolated event – each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Still, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all contain political and demographic ingredients at least as perilous as those that combusted in Tunisia: youthful populations, high unemployment, grotesque inequality, abusive police, reviled leaders, and authoritarian systems that stifle free expression. All I can conclude is that the Arab world has for far too long suffered from religious extremism and dictatorship. In today’s connected world, where every one has similar access to what’s happening across the world, it’s tough to have any repressive religious viewpoint or regime attempting to tie people down for too long! It’s time for the Arab world to accept this reality. This current wave of revolution will not only remove the American backed dictators, but hopefully replace religious extremism by much more moderate values of the kind that will help the Arab world to integrate in a far more democratic manner with the rest of the world – something similar to what Indonesia is attempting. And that, truly, would make it a change of a civilization.
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