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.

NEXT: The Rights of Property

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  1. Conservatives – good; shining knights of freedom.
    Liberals – bad; bordering on evil.

    See? It’s easy.

  2. Lefty, what about Market Anarchists? Where do we fit in?

  3. This use of ‘liberal’ has always bothered me. As someone who is reluctant to adopt the label ‘libertarian’, because I don’t agree with much of the hard line dogma I see within the movement, I think it’s a pity that all the social engineers and progressives on the left coopted the term ‘liberal’ to describe themselves. There’s always the term ‘classical liberal’ but not many people know the difference, and just hear the evil ‘l’ word. Even more bothersome is being labeled a conservative for believing in low and fair taxation, gun rights, and supporting an assertive foreign policy.

    I usually just stick with saying I’m a libertarian leaning moderate. Most people don’t know what that means either, but it least it doesn’t connote lending your support to nanny government, or the myriad of busy-body causes out there that conservatives are so fond of.

  4. ‘Market Anarchists’ – hmm…. I think you can probably find a lot of those in Somalia 😉 I’ve never quite understood how you maintain a market without rule of law. I’ve heard a lot of ideas… but none of them are convincing.

  5. Unfortunately, our two major parties set the table for who’s right and who’s left. I think most people resent being placed in either corrupt camp, especially me and Mr. Madog.

  6. >>Conservatives – good; shining knights of freedom.
    >>Liberals – bad; bordering on evil.

    >>See? It’s easy

    “bordering on”?

  7. I think the definition of an Arab liberal is someone who believes that it’s okay for a woman to smile in public.

  8. Somethign interesting to note, however. My family’s Egyptian and my dad frequently reads the Egyptian opposition papers (including the illegal one that are only published online, luckily he’s safe reading it out here). He says that a common sentiment is that their despotism is better than American democracy. Not that they’re not pro-democracy, but rather they’re reluctant for a foreign power to just roll in and install a government (not that this sentiment is limited to the Mid East). If the fall of Iraq emboldened (and embiggened) the liberals to begin a revolution, that would be the best case. I could see a few American installed democracies reverted to thugocracies (a la Chavez). People are always suspicious of governments installed by foreigners, especially those spirtually, culturally and racially different.

  9. Mo, That’s the first time I ever heard anyone use the word “embiggened” outside of Mrs. Krabople(sp?) on the Simpsons.

  10. Even American-style liberalism is hell of a lot better than what they have in Iraq right now.

  11. Charles wrote:

    “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 that’s true, what accounts for the administration’s tepid support – at best – for the ongoing, anti-fundamentalist Iranian revolution? Or its decision to continue training the Indonesian forces who fought against an independent East Timor? Sorry, but I really don’t see much evidence that Osama “changed” anything about the U.S. preference for stability over democracy in the Arab/Muslim worlds. If anything, 9/11 hardened the ridiculously short-sighted position of the “stable tyrants” crowd.

  12. Thanks Todd Morman, mindless partisan.

  13. Wow, libertarians doing what they do best: arguing about labels.

  14. I’m with Todd. The proposed “war of liberation” for the Kurds involves 1)letting the Turks occupy their territory 2) shutting down their parliment, and 3) putting them under the authority of a military dictator.

    If an American-installed Iraqi liberal democracy were to dissent from American policy, we’d depose it faster than you can say “Mohammed Mossedegh.”

  15. Point well taken Anon 😉

  16. “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.”

    Hmm. Conservative hawks encouraging liberals. Will wonders never cease?

  17. >>Hmm. Conservative hawks encouraging liberals. Will wonders never cease?

  18. Now, don’t be snitty there, Anon. We do need to clarify those terms, though, for sure. I work for a British company and there are several examples where us Americans seem to use opposite meanings for common terms.

    ‘Vacation’, for instance, is when the entire office is closed (like what we call a ‘holiday’).
    ‘Holiday’, on the other hand, is when one of us goes out for what we here would call ‘vacation’.

    And, just as you point out, a ‘liberal’ in their terms really is about halfway between what we’d call libertarian and conservative. An old-country ‘conservative’, though, is one who favors a dictatorial monarchy – the rule of royalty, not of the people.

    I’m unsure now but I wonder if they drive on the left-hand side of the road in Egypt; maybe that’s the cultural marker (?).

  19. “Classical Liberals” are definitely not “american conservatives”. They dont have any issues with the ideals of the Enlightenment that many self-identified conservatives here seem to have.

  20. EMAIL:
    DATE: 02/28/2004 12:35:57
    It’s a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.

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