The Brave Arab Generation
The bravery of the Arab youth fills all of us with pride and has earned our people the admiration of the world. As an Arab American, I think it is past time that the people of the region and the United States sit down together as equals and begin working together in order to maximize the benefits of this historic moment.
When I was at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2004 to 2008 carrying on the agenda of freedom and democracy for the broader Middle East that was launched by President George W. Bush in November of 2003, I and several in his administration heard criticism and push back from the old guards of the Middle East who were discouraging us from pursuing this initiative and asking us to stop shoveling our ideas of democracy down their throat. On the other hand, American career diplomats at State and USAID argued that it was ridiculous for us to dictate to Arab leaders how, when and what to do regarding reform.
During a trip to Jordan, I discussed this subject with students in schools and universities. I was invited to speak at the School of the Sister of Nazareth in Amman. This stop was not organized by the USAID office at the US Embassy in Amman but rather directly with my office in Washington D.C. through the Melkite Bishop of Jordan, Yasser Ayyach, and the Lebanese-born principal of the school, Mother Davide Mouaness. It was perhaps my warmest reception during my two-day visit in Jordan. I spoke to the students and the faculty about President Bush’s initiative for free and democratic countries in the Middle East, and about reform, and that he was the first US president to call for a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. I was told that the student body consisted of a 50/50 balanced between Muslims and Christians. There was some sharp criticism of our support to Israel but the students were engaging, smart and argumentative.
I was dismayed to find that instead of welcoming my remarks, my colleagues at State and USAID criticized me for bringing up “certain topics simply too sensitive to be openly debated in such a forum,” and they even tried to prevent me from further official travel to the region. It is a shame, since it is still true today that the United States and the Arab world badly need to engage each other in a frank but respectful dialogue to find common ground and to make advancements together.
President Bush recognized the failure of our foreign policy throughout the last four decades upon his visit to Great Britain when he told his audience at the Whitehall Palace in London on November 19, 2003: “We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Longstanding ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold”.
It is about time that American diplomats recognize their failure in the Middle East and their obligation to always uphold the values of the United States of America when carrying out their duties, instead of catering to the status quo, and US aid needs to be directed to support only democratic movements that bring true democracy and real reform in those nations.
Several reasons led this great generation of Arabs to stand up for their rights: 1. the unquenchable human thirst for freedom and dignity; 2. the decayed dictatorships that could not bring about a better future; 3. The revelations from wikileaks that confirmed the widespread corruption and abuses among the region’s governments; 4. and last but not least social media technology that made the world a small town. We all felt we are in “Tahrir” square and Bourgeba’s boulevard and now in Libya and Syria.
There is no doubt that the European Union, the United Nations and the United States want reform and democracy in the Middle East. I urge the people of the Middle East to take advantage of the U.S. offer to help them and others around the world as they undertake the difficult but necessary work that is required to create durable democratic institutions which can withstand the next dictator’s attempts to gain absolute power. As the wall of dictatorships in the Middle East is collapsing, I believe we will similarly see the collapse of Muslim fanaticism and the tyranny of the “Shador,” giving the woman in the broader Middle East the freedom and the equality they yearn for.
President Obama talked about several issues in his famous Cairo speech in June 2009. But only one issue got an immediate reaction from the audience when he spoke about democracy - they shouted “Barack Obama, we love you!” when he said: “There are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
President Bush said on November 2, 2003: “Free nations grow stronger and dictatorships grow weaker. Liberty, if not defended, can be lost. The success of freedom rests upon the choices and the courage of free people, and upon their willingness to sacrifice.” And our Arab youth are doing exactly that. They are courageous; they are sacrificing for freedom, democracy and the pursuit of happiness that they are aiming to achieve.
Ride on my young Arab brothers. You are the brave generation. If we do not defend our liberty it will be lost. The success of your movement rests on the choices you make when building your new countries with new constitutions that should recognize the separation of religion and state, the rules of law, human rights and stable governments that has the support of its people.