Simon Mars: Cynicism remains on the Arab street

Iraqi men in Baghdad watch a live broadcast on satellite television of a speech delivered in Cairo by President Barack Obama on June 4, 2009. President Barack Obama today vowed to forge a “new beginning” for Islam and America in a landmark speech to global Muslims, evoking a vision of peace after smoldering years of “suspicion and discord.”

Most people can remember where they were when the planes hit the twin towers. I was in my apartment in Dubai where I’d been living for over a year, working as a regional documentary producer for a start-up TV channel.

The phone rang, calling me into work. I arrived in time to see the towers fall. Those around me looked at their TV screens with a mixture of awe and fear, not really believing what they were seeing. My reaction was more personal: I had lived in New York and knew people who worked in the WTC complex — if not in the towers themselves.

From the beginning, everyone in the newsroom assumed the attack had come from our part of the world, from people we had half-jokingly mused about going to Afghanistan to interview, from fanatics and fools who lived in caves. These were people who could kill — the bombings in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole had  proven that — but not people who could change the world.

I knew though that this is exactly what had just happened. I knew America had to respond and that its response would be both violent and overwhelming.

President Bush’s inauguration, just eight months before, had marked the arrival of a group of people who came to be known as neoconservatives, people who believed in the use of force, people such as Michael Ledeen who had once said, even before the attacks: “Every 10 years or so, the U.S. needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”

One such country that many of the neoconservatives believed the U.S. had unfinished business with was obviously Iraq, and history shows one of Donald Rumsfeld’s first actions following 9/11 was to ask for plans to be drawn up for a possible attack on Iraq — even though there was no evidence Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11.

The attacks on the U.S. created an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy across the Arab world with Libya, Syria and Iran sending its condolences. That emotion continued, even during the invasion of Afghanistan but as it became increasingly obvious that the next target was Iraq that sympathy began to dwindle and the mood began to change.

As the invasion got closer, some Arabs I met began to make comments that it was a good thing the American people felt some of the pain their country had inflicted on millions of innocent people in other lands — such as during  Vietnam or the first Iraq war. Surely, they said, if the people remembered their own pain on 9/11 they would try to prevent their government from attacking Iraq.

My hope was that the U.S. government would see that any attack on Iraq would be playing straight into bin Laden’s hands. From the start, his plan was to draw America into a violent response, to force people around the world to choose sides, to create a clash of religions and civilizations and to stir up a fundamentalism, on both sides, that would set fire to the world. Surely the U.S. would not give him what he most wanted?

As the war drew close, the region became more inflamed in protest and the antagonism toward America grew.

They heard America’s explanation of why it had to attack Iraq — and they didn’t believe a word of it. Memories fade, people forget; so who can remember now, clearly, the prelude to the war? The propaganda and the lies? The yellow cake and the weapons of mass destruction? The denial that it had anything to do with regime change?

People in the Middle East tend to be cynical; it goes with the territory, living as they do in the space between their leaders’ rhetoric and the reality of their lives.

They know their leaders lie, so instead they turn to conspiracies for the truth: There had to be, people would say to me, another reason the U.S. wanted to attack Iraq.?Was the hidden hand of Israel at work? After all, who else stood to gain from an American attack on Israel’s enemies?

Some conspiracies were easy to dismiss. Rumors that Jewish people had been told not to go into work on 9/11 was demonstrably a lie, but I had no answer as to how Mohammad Atta’s passport had been found at Ground Zero or who had made the ostensibly fake video of bin Laden sitting around discussing the attacks over dinner.

And so the Iraq war started: an easy victory followed by a disastrous occupation. Even now, it’s difficult to underestimate how much harm this did to America’s reputation.

In the Middle East, American democracy came to represent destruction, torture chambers and squalid deals with repressive dictators as long as they collaborated with the U.S.’s strategic goals.

People could not understand why, if the U.S. insisted it was fighting for freedom, its principal Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, was a feudal monarchy which refused to even let its women drive cars. And if Israel was not a motivating force behind the attack, people would say, then was it all just for oil? Was it as simple as that?

Five years later, following the inauguration of President Obama, the region seemed prepared to give the U.S. a second chance. I was in Cairo a month after Obama had delivered his speech calling for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” People told me how pleased they were at Obama’s tone: pleased that he had praised Islam and promised the U.S. would treat the Arab people with respect and that he had described the plight of the Palestinians as “intolerable” and called for the creation of a Palestinian state.

What they did not hear, though, was any condemnation of the government of the country where the speech was given: Egypt, which had then spent 30 years under the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak. So, as much as they praised the speech they worried, was it simply more rhetoric — or would they really see a change in policy?

They didn’t. Despite Obama’s promise Guantanamo Bay remains open. The troops are still in Iraq and few believe they will be leaving anytime soon — even after this December’s deadline. And they saw Israel attack Gaza with impunity while continuing to build settlements on Palestinian land.

Power is one thing people in the Middle East understand, and they can sense when it is ebbing away. Ten years after 9/11, people in the Middle East see a weakened America.

Bin Laden may be dead, but his desire to do to the United States what the mujahideen did to the Russians in Afghanistan is still on track. One reason the Soviet Union collapsed was that it could no longer afford its empire. People in the Middle East now look at the US and wonder if they are witnessing history repeat itself.

They see a country that will ultimately have spent around $4 trillion on its War on Terror — a country that has unimaginable levels of debt and has been humiliated by China’s recent comment that it has “every right now to demand the United States address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China’s dollar assets.” They saw Hurricane Katrina and hear about a country where 1 percent of the people now own 40 percent of the wealth. They see, too, a recent poll that shows 78 percent of the public are dissatisfied with the country’s political system. And, 10 years on, they see an Afghanistan where the Taliban are waiting for the U.S. to leave before they again take over. In Iraq, they see a country where nothing happens without its politicians first checking how it plays in Tehran.  

So what role do people in the Middle East want the United States play in the region during the second decade after 9/11? One thing they certainly do not want is more military intervention.
The events of the Arab Spring showed the Arab people that they possessed an unknown power: the power to control their own destiny. It revealed, too, the utter irrelevance of al-Qaeda and the extremists; they had nothing to do with the uprising and are disliked by most people in the region.
The American public needs to know that people in the Middle East actually like America. They admire its freedoms, its culture and its opportunities. But most of all, they admire its liberty.
Now, nine months after it began, the Arab Spring is faltering with authoritarian governments beginning to regain control. The Arab people are asking for help. They want the United States to use its power and influence to help them replicate the great promise of the American revolution — to help them create their own governments of “we the people.” America should not let them down.

-Simon Mars is a TV producer and journalist who lives in Cairo, Egypt, and Dubai, UAE.


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