The recent rebellion in the Arab world has not just shaken the foundations of authoritarian regimes across the north of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
It has also shattered many of the myths and prejudiced stereotypes propagated by the corporate media and right-wing politicians about Arab peoples.
When former US president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, one of his justifications was the need to “spread democracy” across the region. This was to start with the “liberation” of Iraqi people from the Saddam Hussein dictatorship (a former US ally) and “Islamic terrorists”.
By August 26 that year, Bush proclaimed that occupied Iraq’s “progress toward self-determination and democracy brings hope to other oppressed people in the region and throughout the world. It is the rise of democracy that tyrants fear and terrorists seek to undermine”.
“The people who yearn for liberty and opportunity in countries like Iran and throughout the Middle East are watching and they are praying for our success in Iraq.”
Commenting on the recent protests, Bush’s former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, told US foreign policy magazine The Cable on February 14 — two days after the fall of Egyptian dictator and US ally Hosni Mubarak — that credit for his downfall was due to the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” for the region.
“That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy,” Rumsfeld said. “What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems.
“There’s no question that the example is helpful in the region.”
Rumsfeld is half right: there is a helpful example spreading through the region. The problem for the US is that it is Egypt’s example that has spread to Iraq, not vice versa.
On February 17, the Washington Post said: “At least two protesters were killed Thursday when soldiers opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah as the unrest triggered by turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East reached the normally placid enclave of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
“The shootings brought to five the number of deaths in two days of violent protests in Iraq, where long-standing grievances about inadequate services, unemployment and corruption have erupted on the streets, inspired at least in part by the successes of the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.”
US President Barack Obama, whose government has continued the Bush-Rumsfeld colonial policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan, made no comment on these events.
This is despite Obama arguing in a February 15 press conference that US policy towards the region was based on two principals: opposition to violence as a way of maintaining control and defence of the right to freedom of speech and assembly.
Obama said: “I think my administration’s approach is the approach that jibes with how most Americans think about this region, which is that each country is different, each country has its own traditions; America can’t dictate how they run their societies.”
His policy may “jibe” with the image constructed by the corporate media and fed to people in the US, but the images that have emerged from the democratic revolutions sweeping the region have demolished many false ideas about the Arab world.
In particular, the notion its culture is mired in the Dark Ages — and it is dominated by fanatical Islamists and subjugated people content with, or unable to overthrow, authoritarian dictators.
The reality is different: young people and women (with and without veils) have been at the forefront of the protests, busily texting and tweeting on their mobile phones in-between fighting off repression.
Christians have defended Muslims from police attacks during Friday prayers in Egypt and a hip hop song (“President, your people are dying”) posted on YouTube became the unofficial anthem of the Tunisian revolution.
Eduardo Febbro, writing in the February 9 Argentine daily Pagina 12, said: “The Arab democrats that brought down autocratic and corrupt regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have made an invaluable contribution to human knowledge: with their democratic vigor, they have dismantled the demonic profile that Western media and opportunist commentators had painted of Islam and the Muslim Arab world in general, at the same time as questioning the strategic interests of the largest global power.”
Rumsfeld warned that “while what’s happening is hopeful, all of us have to be realistic and hope the process is one that, unlike Lebanon, unlike Gaza, and unlike Iran, does not end up bringing people’s hopes up and then dashed with a repressive regime”.
However, the real threat to democracy in a country such as Egypt comes from the chiefs of the US-funded military. Having assumed power after Mubarak’s fall, army heads appear to be seeking to save as much of the old regime as possible.
The US has propped up dictators and contributed to the growth of fundamentalist groups that are now used to demonise an entire people and religion as enemies of “Western values”.
Take Iran, which the US likes to demonise.
In 1953, a CIA-organised coup brought down the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh government after it decided to nationalise the country’s oil reserves.
In its place, the US installed the brutal Shah. This regime destroyed the remnants of democratic nationalist forces — opening space for Islamic fundamentalist groups to grow in the process.
In 1979, a revolutionary movement involving tens of millions of Iranians finally brought to an end the reign of the dictator.
The strength of the Islamist forces allowed it to capture control of the revolution — not before carrying out a mass slaughter of remaining left forces.
The new regime consolidated itself in the face of the 1980-’88 Iran-Iraq war, in which the US-backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US sponsored Islamic fundamentalists in the fight against the Soviet Union. One fundamentalist leader who rose through the US-sponsored fight against Soviet troops in Afghanistan was Osama Bin Laden.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Islamic fundamentalists became the new “enemy of the West” to justify a US foreign policy aimed at increasing its domination of the oil-rich region. In much of the media and Hollywood, all Muslims and Arabs were tarred with the same brush.
Some media commentators and Western politicians have raised the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — without acknowledging that the movement that removed Mubarak was an uprising of almost all sectors of society.
The truth, Hamid Dabshi said in a February 13 AlJazeera.net comment piece, is: “The pro-Israeli neocons in the United States and their Zionist counterparts in Israel compare the Egyptian and Iranian revolutions because they are frightened out of their wits by a massive revolutionary uprising in a major Arab country that may no longer allow the abuse of the democratic will of a people for the cozy continuation of a colonial settlement called ‘Israel’.”
Those that represent the real threat to democracy and freedom are to be found in Washington — not on the streets of Tunis, Cairo and beyond.