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Shaking Up the Arab World

It is not difficult to understand why last year’s invasion of Iraq has had the impact of an earthquake on the Middle East, with tremors and aftershocks spreading from the epicenter in Baghdad throughout the entire Arab world. In the first place, Baghdad has a unique and special significance in Arab history and culture totally unrivaled by any other Arab metropolis. To many in the Arab world, this invasion was reminiscent of Baghdad’s historic fall to the Mongols in the 13th century.

Even more jarring was the wide gap between the expectations on the “Arab street” about the invasion and its actual outcome. The general confusion during the first two weeks of the war and the resistance with which allied forces were at first met allowed Saddam Hussein’s propaganda machine to promote the myth that the United States had walked into another Vietnam. Expectations of strong Iraqi resistance were fueled by a general atmosphere of resentment toward America for its unqualified support of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and the anti-Muslim sentiments expressed in the United States after 9/11. As a result, there was stunned disbelief throughout the Arab world at the ease and rapidity with which Baghdad finally fell. Regarding the war on Iraq as only part of a “comprehensive” U.S. war on terror, Arabs anxiously wondered: Where would the ax fall next?

While the first shock has worn off, most in the Arab world, including some who had opposed Saddam Hussein, remain opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and are suspicious of American intentions toward Iraq and Arabs and Muslims in general. A much smaller group sees the advantages of the fall of Saddam’s regime and prioritizes the rebuilding of Iraq over the issue of bringing an end to the American occupation.

Nevertheless, despite the lingering anger and suspicion, the invasion of Iraq has arguably done more to further the cause of reform than to stoke the fires of extremism. Saddam’s fall was a harsh reminder of just how hollow, inadequate and weak despotic systems really are. It revived the memory of past major Arab defeats in 1948 and 1967 and the lesson that should have been learned from them — that the absence of democracy is the major cause of national disintegration.

Although Arab regimes have expressed discomfort with American proposals for political, economic, social and cultural reforms in the Middle East, significant, if gradual, changes have been made. In Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the Gulf states and the Palestinian territories, reforms related to civic liberties, human rights and the empowerment of women have taken place. A debate of unprecedented intensity and scale is now occurring in the Arab world. Take, for example, the very public soul-searching prompted by the grim findings of the Arab Human Development Report 2003.

There is no question that U.S.-Arab relations have been qualitatively changed by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the American invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, the Arab world is now perceived by the United States as a source of imminent threats to its national security. On the other hand, the United States has established its physical presence in the Middle East, sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran, exerting pressure and making demands. The United States now has new friends in the area, such as Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Sudan — countries that have acquiesced to American demands and are likely to replace old traditional favorites, such as Saudi Arabia.

In order for the United States to play a constructive role in the Arab world, including the promotion of democracy, it must achieve two objectives: It must bring about a permanent and just settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It must also create a democratic, economically prosperous, culturally tolerant society in Iraq, replacing images of invasion with those of prosperity and construction. These achievements would build positive attitudes toward the United States in the region and bolster its calls for reform, which are, in the end, consistent with the wishes of all Arab peoples for better and more effective governance.

Osama Al-Ghazali Harb is the editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya, an Egyptian quarterly focusing on international politics, and a consultant to the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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