Obama does not get it

If independent, democratic, governments are formed in the Middle East, they won’t follow Washington’s orders.

Obama Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]
Obama seems to believe that new governments in the region will be Israel’s ‘natural’ allies [GALLO/GETTY]

Barack Obama, the US president, has still not fully grasped the essence of the revolutions underway in the Arab world. He genuinely seems to believe that the people rallying for democracy in the region are making a pro-Western, if not pro-Israeli, statement.

“All the forces that we’re seeing at work in Egypt are forces that naturally should be aligned with us, should be aligned with Israel – if we make good decisions now and we understand sort of the sweep of history,” Obama recently told a group of Democrats in Florida.

I am not sure how Obama drew this conclusion, but he is either terribly misinformed or engaged in a serious bout of wishful thinking.

His statements, however, echo the assessments of many American pundits, some of whom have been celebrating the fact that anti-Israeli or American slogans have not dominated the recent and ongoing uprisings.
It is true that the protesters are not focusing on Israel.

But to say that these forces could be natural allies of Israel and the West is to take a huge leap into a highly inaccurate assessment of the situation. The US president is misreading the message of the protesting Arab masses.

Rewriting history

From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, and in many places in between, protesters have been calling for free and accountable governments. Decades of bitter experience have shown them that unrepresentative governments are often willing to accept – or at the very least are unable to resist – subordination to Western, and particularly American, political and economic diktats.

IN depth

More from Lamis Andoni:

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  The myth of Israeli morality
  Hariri rally ‘marks the end of March 14’
  Break the silence on Iran
  Abbas must stand by his decision
  What now for Fatah?
  Empowering the powerless

The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, for example, was not signed by a democratic Arab government but was reached in spite of the strong opposition – that persists until today – within the Arab world’s largest country. Likewise, it is unlikely that the 1978 Camp David Accords would have been signed if it were up to the Egyptian people who, undeterred by the alliance of consecutive Egyptian governments with Washington and their close ties to Tel Aviv, continued to resist all attempts to impose normalised relations with Israel.

Over the years, the Egyptian people have repeatedly shown – through demonstrations, their media and even their cinema – that they oppose US policies in the region and Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians.

But now some American analysts, officials and former officials are seeking to rewrite history – and possibly to convince themselves in the process – by claiming that popular animosity towards Israel was simply a product of the Mubarak regime’s efforts to deflect attention from its own vices.

Jackson Diehl, a Washington Post columnist, has even blamed the former Egyptian regime for deliberately keeping the peace with Israel cold and for sometimes challenging the US. “Imagine an Egypt that consistently opposes the West in international forums while relentlessly campaigning against Israel. A government that seeds its media with vile anti-Semitism, locks relations with Israel in a cold freeze and makes a habit of publicly rejecting “interference” in its affairs by the United States. A regime that allows Hamas to import tonnes of munitions and Iranian rockets into the Gaza Strip,” Diehl wrote of the Mubarak regime in an article published on February 14.

Diehl seems to think that a democratic Egypt will be friendlier to the US and Israel than what he deemed to be an insufficiently cooperative dictatorship. The same idea has been presented by Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state, who argued that Mubarak’s fear of the “Arab street” prevented him from fully endorsing US policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But what Rice and others seem not to realise – despite the fact that their statements implicitly acknowledge it – is that Mubarak’s supposed shortcomings reflected his realisation that he could go no further in his support of US policies without provoking popular anger.

Arab regimes have always sought to appease the opposition by paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, because they understand the place it holds in the Arab psyche. And while the revolutions have revealed that this tactic is no longer sufficient to keep the forces of opposition at bay, it is wrong to assume that the new Arab mood is somehow consistent with a friendlier posture towards a country that continues to occupy Palestinian land and to dispossess Palestinian people.

Defining democracy

This kind of misreading of the situation derives not from facts but from an Orientalist attitude that has long dominated American thinking and large sections of the American media.

In the prevailing US political culture, supporting Washington’s policies is considered synonymous with democratic thinking and behaviour, while opposing the American outlook and Israel is judged to derive from the backwardness of ‘captive minds’. According to this perspective, a mentality of imagined victimhood feeds ‘hatred’ of and resistance towards Israel.

But, it is, in fact, this thinking that is utterly undemocratic. If we assume that democratic values are universal values and move away from a Western ethno-centric interpretation, we will find that the rejection of occupation is totally consistent with ideas of freedom and human dignity – two supposedly integral components of democratic thought.

Just as rejecting racial discrimination asserts a belief in freedom, so does the refusal to simply accept the Israeli and American occupations of Arab lands and subordination of Arab people.

So unless Obama is talking about ending the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, why would he imagine that the Arab revolutionaries who rose against their oppressors would be natural allies of the US?

But some American officials and pundits are searching for any kind of interpretation that will enable them to divorce US support for the Israeli occupation from America’s relations with the Arab world. By claiming that the Palestinian issue is no longer central to Arab thinking, they imagine that the US can simply impose a ‘solution’ that ensures Israeli hegemony in the region and falls short of accepting the Palestinian people’s right to exercise self-determination.

Those in Washington and Tel Aviv who have sought to minimise the role of the Palestinian cause in Arab politics, would be well advised to read an article by the famous Egyptian blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy in the Guardian, in which he argues that it was the demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada in 2000 and the 2003 protests against the US war in Iraq that served as the precursors of the Egyptian revolution.

The delusion that movements against the injustice of dictatorship and the injustice of occupation will somehow contradict each other reflects a grave misinterpretation of the sentiments of the Arab masses – unless, of course, Obama is simply hoping to use this flawed reasoning to justify the continuation of equally flawed policies in the region.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.