Arab Liberals and the War


Four Egyptian intellectuals appeared on the Arabic-language ART-TV program Against the Grain this week, and agreed that an American Mideast presence stemming from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could represent a "window of opportunity" for the region. According to the panelists—three academics and a journalist from the weekly Rose Yusef—the U.S. could become a force for democratization. Two of the participants, including the journalist, also expressed caution, noting the region's overwhelming problems and numerous political variables should temper anyone's optimism about the ultimate effects of American intervention.

A program like this is noteworthy for a number of reasons. For example, war "hawks" have argued that an American presence would encourage more of the Arab world's liberals to re-emerge after years of keeping their heads down. (Such outspoken liberals as the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem have been ostracized in recent years.) The Against the Grain segment is evidence that this could indeed happen—that it may already be happening—and that a meaningful debate about the region's exhausted politics could ensue.

Certainly, this panel engaged in an unrestrained critique of the Arab world. The various participants pronounced the region's post-colonial politics, institutions, and economies to be failures, and the Arab world itself to be stagnating. The coming of the Americans, they speculated, might provide an opportunity for dramatic reform, though it would be up to Arabs to bring about that reform. Interestingly, the issue of Palestine barely came up. There's no link available, but similar arguments about the potential results of an Iraq war were advanced by Fouad Ajami in Foreign Affairs.

American Mideast policy has not been been friendly to Arab liberals; the U.S. has long sought to maintain the region's various tyrannies (including Saddam Hussein's) in the interest of "stability." Osama bin Laden changed that. If the U.S. prosecutes the war and its aftermath in the common interests of U.S. and Arab liberalism (a significant "if"), then 9/11 could be transformed into the suicide of Arab political pathologies. That would be a far more significant response than finding bin Laden under some Central Asian rock.