T.F. ON AN UPSWING:

February 20, 2005

When Camels Fly: What you are witnessing in the Arab world is the fall of its Berlin Wall. The old autocratic order is starting to crumble. (THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, 2/20/05, NY Times)

It’s good news, bad news time again for the Middle East. The good news is that what you are witnessing in the Arab world is the fall of its Berlin Wall. The old autocratic order is starting to crumble. The bad news is that unlike the Berlin Wall in central Europe, the one in the Arab world is going to fall one bloody brick at a time, and, unfortunately, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union are not waiting to jump into our arms on the other side.

No one is more pleased than I am to see the demonstration of “people power” in Iraq, with millions of Iraqis defying the “you vote, you die” threat of the Baathists and jihadists. No one should take lightly the willingness of the opposition forces in Lebanon to stand up and point a finger at the Syrian regime and say “J’accuse!” for the murder of the opposition leader Rafik Hariri. No one should dismiss the Palestinian election, which featured a real choice of candidates, and a solid majority voting in favor of a decent, modernizing figure – Mahmoud Abbas. No one should ignore the willingness of some Egyptians to demand to run against President Hosni Mubarak when he seeks a fifth – unopposed – term. These are things you have not seen in the Arab world before. They are really, really unusual – like watching camels fly.

Something really is going on with the proverbial “Arab street.” The automatic assumption that the “Arab street” will always rally to the local king or dictator – if that king or dictator just waves around some bogus threat or insult from “America,” “Israel” or “the West” – is no longer valid.

Ever notice how Mr. Friedman, who’s writing is virtually bipolar, assumes that it is the world that swings back and forth rather than his mood? The “Arab street”, like the Eastern European street before it, was a lie.

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MIDDLE EAST MO':

February 13, 2005

A Liberal in Damascus (LEE SMITH, 2/13/05, NY Times Magazine)

When I first met Ammar Abdulhamid in Washington in the fall, the 38-year-old Syrian novelist, poet and liberal dissident had Damascus on his mind. He had received word from his wife back in Syria that the political situation at home was becoming more precarious for rights activists like himself. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he’d been meeting with leading figures in the Bush administration and writing articles in the Arab and Western presses that were sharply critical of the Syrian government; he simply didn’t know what to expect on his return. Now, sitting here in a Damascus coffeehouse in late January a week after his return, he is telling me that he had found reason for optimism about the country’s future in the least likely of places.

”When I arrived at the airport,” Abdulhamid says, ”I was told I had to go to political security. It took me some time to find out exactly which security apparatus wanted to speak to me, but then I met with them for two days in a row. I was very up front about my activities and even talked about things they didn’t know yet, like an article I had co-written with an Israeli. One of my interrogators told me that what I was doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and he’s right. I got the sense from even some of the security police that they see there has to be a new way of doing things in Syria.”

For the last half-century, the Islamist movement and Arab regimes themselves have pushed Arab liberals to the sidelines. As a result, the Arab world’s democracy activists and intellectuals do not enjoy the same advantages their Central and Eastern European counterparts did back in the 80’s: whereas the generation of Havel and Walesa was backed by the Catholic Church and its Polish-born pope, Arab activists enjoy no such solidarity with any established Muslim institutions. Indeed, while militant Islamist leaders have called for elections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they typically see liberal, secular reformers like Abdulhamid as a threat to the traditional foundations of their authority.

Even so, the liberals seem to be gathering a little momentum. Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region’s leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States’ decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. ”We are an important part of the world,” he says, ”and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us.”

But History does.


VILE:

February 5, 2005

Shameful EU appeasement of Castro puts profit before principle (Vaclav Havel, The Scotsman, February 5th, 2005)

I vivedly remember the slightly ludicrous, slightly risqué and somewhat distressing predicament in which Western diplomats in Prague found themselves during the Cold War.

They regularly needed to resolve the delicate issue of whether to invite to their embassy celebrations various Charter 77 signatories, human-rights activists, critics of the communist regime, displaced politicians, or even banned writers, scholars and journalists – people with whom the diplomats were generally friends.

Sometimes we dissidents were not invited, but received an apology; and sometimes we were invited, but did not accept the invitation so as not to complicate the lives of our courageous diplomat friends. Or we were invited to come at an earlier hour in the hope that we would leave before the official representatives arrived, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.

This all happened when the Iron Curtain divided Europe, and the world, into opposing camps. Western diplomats had their countries’ economic interests to consider; but, unlike the Soviet side, they took seriously the idea of “dissidents or trade”. I cannot recall any occasion at that time when the West or any of its organisations (Nato or the European Community) issued some public appeal, recommendation or edict stating that some specific group of independently minded people – however defined – were not to be invited to diplomatic parties, celebrations or receptions.

But today this is happening. One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world – the EU – has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU’s embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government’s wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero of Spain has prevailed. […]

I can hardly think of a better way for the EU to dishonour the noble ideals of freedom, equality and human rights that the Union espouses; indeed, principles that it reiterates in its new constitutional agreement. To protect European corporations’ profits from their Havana hotels, the Union will cease inviting open-minded people to EU embassies; and we will deduce who they are from the expression on the face of the dictator and his associates. It is hard to imagine a more shameful deal.

Cuba’s dissidents will, of course, happily do without Western cocktail parties and polite conversation at receptions. This persecution will admittedly aggravate their difficult struggle; but they will naturally survive it. The question is whether the EU will survive it. […]

It is suicidal for the EU to draw on Europe’s worst political traditions, the common denominator of which is the idea that evil must be appeased and that the best way to achieve peace is through indifference to the freedom of others.

What must really be painful for a titan like Havel is that almost nobody knows anymore what Europe’s best political traditions are.