Arabs don’t want Democracy for themselves? Since when?

‘Khadafy is a dictator but he’s now considered a good guy by the U.S,’ a relative with a ‘Get Real’ attitude recently told me. ‘It’s not about democratic ideals for the Arab World. It’s about U.S. national interests.’  

He was right and despite my loathing of Arab regimes and desire to see Arab leaders lose power or be humbled, the reality is that those who play the game are guaranteed their preservation. That’s how it’s been since the days of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

Consider the well-publicized trial of Egyptian civil rights activist, Ashraf Ibrahim. He had organized small but verbal demonstrations on behalf of the Palestinian uprising for freedom and then used his video camera to subsequently record scenes of Egyptian police brutality. Ibrahim’s home was later raided and his video camera seized.  

At his December 6 hearing, Ibrahim told a Washington Post reporter, ‘I am not a terrorist,’ he said. ‘I was only talking.’ Maybe, he added with a shy smile, ‘that is why they are afraid of me,’ reflecting on the Egyptian government.  

I wonder if the Bush Administration is aware of the numbers of Arabs languishing in prisons for seeking out democratic reforms in their respective countries. To listen to the patronizing speeches of President George W. Bush, one would think that Arabs have never heard of the concept of democracy or do not wish it for themselves. Or that Arabs hate our freedoms and way of life. Desire for democracy or freedom is not the issue in the Arab World. A visit to any Arab country reveals a love for the American culture – from our Levis to hip-hop. No, the issue isn’t hatred for our way of life. It is hatred for those depriving Arabs an ‘American’ way of life.  

I think often of a conversation I had a couple years ago with one of the spokesmen at the State Department’s Near Eastern bureau. A British Broadcasting Company report reported of the U.S.’s desire to influence Al Jazeera, the CNN of the Arab World and arguably the freest media in the Middle East. ‘We’re not making demands on Al Jazeera to change their programming or to censor,’ he insisted. ‘We just asked for more inclusion of American perspectives . . . balanced coverage.’ He obviously had never watched Al Jazeera programming or he would know that Americans are interviewed constantly.  

Setting aside the criticisms of our own media for ignoring the day-to-day brutality at Israeli checkpoints and the post-traumatic stress of Palestinian children, I was stunned that our government was now concerned with a media that has been lauded throughout the world for its independence and integrity.  

The reality appears that we wish for the status quo to continue because a free media that awakens the Arab populace to the brutality of regional governments is not ‘good’ for our national interests. And democracies that reflect the anger of Arabs at being set back by these U.S.-funded authoritarian governments more concerned about self-preservation than the dignity of their own people is also not ‘good’ for our interests.  

We may hold countries like U.S. allies, Egypt and Jordan, as role models for the Arab World, but many Egyptians and Jordanians will happily tell you about the sham trials and the police brutality. Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, doesn’t even allow women to drive and the government has manipulated the Koran to justify human rights abuses. But they’re also role models. Why? Because they do our bidding instead of the bidding for their own people. Would we, as Americans, accept such a government that put the interests of others before our own?  

Of course, Arabs are not the only ones who feel this distaste with our foreign policy – a policy that sadly does not reflect our rhetoric of democracy. Just ask a Chilean from South America. Mention 9-11 and different images are conjured up – September 11, 1973 marked the rise of US-supported dictator Augusto Pinochet who began a reign of torture that resulted in the disappearances and murders of thousands of Chileans. But, hey, he was a ‘good guy’ for opposing Socialist leader Salvador Allende.  

Ultimately, the true test of whether the U.S. really wants democracy in the Arab World is whether we accept and respect the election of future leaderships, who in all likelihood will not be very friendly to the United States for the years we kept tyrannical dictators in power. Call me cynical but something tells me that we won’t.