February 14, 2011

Mideast myths die hard, but when they do...

The USSR and its satellite states were all premised upon a common ideological myth and an interlocking security framework, so when Poland pushed back and the Berlin Wall fell, there was no stopping it. Each Mideast state has its own form of monarchy, Ba'athist or theocratic underpinning, and military coordination has been shoddy since… forever. So it won't be so easy, though some countries are already far more open economically and culturally than anything that existed behind the Iron Curtain.

Many of the region's leaders have used fears of Israeli or imperialist threats to maintain their regimes. Their opponents have used the same tools to try to discredit them and the corrupt status quo. Recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt have been relatively free of such paranoia and thought control, or at least the people have broken through it. One of the Egyptian military's first acts since shedding its golden Mask of Mubarak was to reaffirm the peace treaty with Israel.

Meanwhile, Iranians live in double fear of an Israeli attack on the Islamic Republic's nuclear installations: First, that it will cost lives and treasure; second, that the mullahs will use that as a pretext to further strengthen their rule. Whether Arabs and Persians really believe even half the conspiracy theories routinely thrown around by all sides in the seasonal propaganda storms, in Tunisia and in Egypt they were not enough to either hold them back or force their hands.

Of course, the paucity of democratic societies in the Middle East is not due to conspiracy theories alone. The region is beset by the ruinous legacies of colonization, military rule by force, religious conflict, greed, corruption, and oil politics. But those are all real limitations, while conspiracies are a state of mind. 

Many in the West, and certainly in the United States, act as though Arabs and Muslims are not ready for democracy or self-rule -- or even if they are, "we're not ready for them to have it" (or something along those lines). This self-delusion may be breaking down at our end as well, due to our need for democracy in Iraq and the discipline and unambiguous virtue of the latest uprisings.

Thanks to Al Jazeera and other homegrown news and social media, and basic human sense, word is getting around that neither the pharaohs nor the outsiders are manipulating every action and reaction. Change is being reimaged from an ever-present danger into a palpable deliverance.

Each country has its own challenges and channels, and as the Soviet aftermath has shown, democracy doesn't fill every vacuum. Popular rule does not guarantee a regional peace, with or without Israel. But when a few hundred million adults are tired of being treated like children, and the leaders finally know it, changes are bound to happen. It involves blood, sweat and sacrifice, endurance, courage and vision, but such resources of our common humanity will no longer be spent in vain.

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