Regardless of the outcomes of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and regardless of whether protests for democracy in Yemen, Jordan and other Arab countries grow into similar uprisings, the Middle East has fundamentally changed.
The people have lost their fear.
Spearheaded by youth, millions of ordinary people have thrown off their fear of state violence and taken to the streets to oppose poverty, state violence and corruption.
Their demands have been for freedom of speech, democratic and accountable government and economic justice.
The slogans and demands of these movements have been secular, not religious.
Protesters have emphasised unity between religious and non-religious people, and between followers of different religions.
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In Egypt, fears of communal conflict that followed the New Year’s Eve bombing of a Christian Church in Alexandria have vanished. Muslims and Christians have united against the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak.
Women have been on the frontline in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
In a February 2 YouTube video by activist journalist Doha Al Zohairy, female protesters in Tahrir Square noted that sexual harassment — something for which Cairo is notorious — was absent from the demonstrations.
If US President Barack Obama’s acclaimed 2009 speech in Cairo to “the Muslim world” about democracy were taken at face value, it could be expected that the Obama administration would have enthusiastically supported the uprisings.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has often declared that spreading democratic values (especially women’s rights) in the Middle East is a US priority.
However, far from supporting the Egyptian uprising, the Obama government has remained doggedly loyal to the Mubarak regime.
When millions of Egyptians poured onto the streets to demand that Mubarak step down immediately, US leaders merely called on him to make “reforms” and “listen to grievances”.
After protesters rejected Mubarak’s February 1 offer to leave office in September, the US called only for an “orderly transition” to democracy.
When Mubarak’s undercover cops and paid thugs brutally attacked unarmed protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 2, US leaders called for “both sides” to refrain from violence.
The US even asked the Egyptian government to investigate itself over allegations that it had organised the mob.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera broadcast images of protesters holding the police ID cards they had taken from the thugs who attacked them.
There is nothing new about Western hypocrisy when it comes to democracy.
The issues that helped spark the revolts — food shortages, unemployment and poverty — are the result of Western-pushed neoliberalism.
In the Arab World, the “free and open markets” that are supposed to be essential to democracy have meant obeying World Bank and International Monetary Fund diktats. This has fuelled poverty for most, while Western corporations and a tiny Arab elite have benefited.
The US has a long record of backing dictators that serve US interests, but it has no loyalty to them.
For example, in the face of a people’s uprising in 1986, the US ended its long-term support for the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It did the same when mass protests in 1998 led to the fall of the US-backed Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia.
Western governments suddenly appeared to support democracy in Tunisia after dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January. But despite the rhetoric, it has spoken out against the protesters’ demand that all former ministers of the Ben Ali regime leave the interim government.
However, the Obama administration has hesitated to cast aside the Mubarak regime, even as it disintegrates in the face of mass protests.
On February 4, Obama had still refused to call for Mubarak’s resignation. Instead, he said Mubarak “needs to listen to what is voiced by the people and make a judgment about a pathway forward that is orderly, that is meaningful and serious”.
At the same time he called for protesters to negotiate with the regime. The protesters have said they will only negotiate once Mubarak has resigned.
The US’s unwillingness to cast Mubarak aside reflects the fact that Mubarak has been a particularly valuable dictator for the US.
For example, Mubarak had agreed for Egypt to become a destination for “extraordinary rendition”, where CIA detainees were taken for interrogation and torture.
But more significant is that Mubarak is a key ally of Israel.
Israeli politicians have been more outspoken than their US counterparts in their defence of Mubarak. Some have been willing to publicly oppose democracy outright.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said on February 1: “If, the day after elections, you get an extremist religious dictatorship, what are these democratic elections worth?”
That democracy in Egypt (or any other Arab country) will lead to an Islamic fundamentalist regime is Israel’s standard objection. The same idea has been reflected in much of the Western media coverage of the Egyptian uprising.
Many conservative commentators have cited the main Egyptian opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as a fundamentalist threat.
However, religious slogans and demands have been absent from the protests. At first, the MB abstained from the protest movement.
Since then it has been part of an alliance led by Mohamed ElBaredei, who the Western media describes as a secular moderate.
The MB is not leading the protest movement. Nor is it pushing a fundamentalist agenda.
Its nationwide support before the uprising began was estimated to be about 20-30%. Its slowness to support the democracy movement, and the emergence of a grassroots leadership from within the movement, may have caused its support to fall.
In reality, it is not Islamic fundamentalism but democracy that scares Israel most.
Despite the claims made by the Israeli mainstream media, a democratic Egypt would not automatically want war with Israel.
However, the Mubarak regime’s active collaboration with Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is deeply unpopular among most Egyptians.
In return for this collaboration, Mubarak’s Egypt became the second largest recipient of US military aid, after Israel.
Israeli daily Haaretz warned on January 31 that the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship “will have far reaching security consequences for Israel. It will immediately damage Israel's quiet cooperation with the Egyptians on this front and it may lead to a thaw between Egypt and the Hamas government in Gaza.
“It could … lead to a refusal by Egypt to allow movement of Israeli military submarines and ships in the Suez Canal, employed in the last two years as a deterrent against Iran and to combat weapons smuggling from Sudan to Gaza.”
Egyptian collaboration with Israel includes helping to maintain the starvation blockade of the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt. But it extends beyond this.
Leaked US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks and leaked documents published by Al Jazeera in January show Egypt took part in the 2007 overthrow of the democratically elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
The degree of Egyptian collaboration with apartheid Israel is such that only an unaccountable dictatorship could maintain it.
The US and Israel do not want a democratic Egypt. This is why if Mubarak does fall, US hopes are pinned on Omar Suleiman, the chief of intelligence who Mubarak made his vice-president and successor when the protests started.
The New York Times said on January 27 that the Obama administration had discussed with the Egyptian government a proposal for Mubarak to stand down and let Suleiman head a new government.
On February 5, the NYT said the US and European governments were pushing a plan to allow Suleiman to oversee a more gradual transition that left Mubarak in power until September while Suleiman headed “negotiations” with opposition groups.
Suleiman is often cited approvingly in the Western media for his role in the Israel-Palestine peace process.
However, as the leaks published by Al Jazeera show, the “peace process” has been fraudulent all along. Palestinians were offered a phantom prospect of peace and self-determination in the future in return for concessions made in the present.
Australian Mamdouh Habib had the misfortune of becoming personally acquainted with Suleiman after the CIA abducted him in Pakistan in 2001 and took him to Egypt.
Journalist Richard Neville wrote in 2009: “Habib was interrogated by the country’s Intelligence Director, General Omar Suleiman, who is ranked second in power to President Hosni Mubarak.
“Back in 2001, Suleiman took a personal interest in anyone suspected of links with Al Qaeda. As Habib had visited Afghanistan shortly before 9/11, he was under suspicion.
“Suleiman slapped Habib’s face so hard, the blindfold was dislodged, revealing the torturer’s identity. According to his memoir, Habib was repeatedly zapped with high-voltage electricity, immersed in water up to his nostrils, beaten, his fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks.
“He was again interrogated by Omar Suleiman. To loosen Habib’s tongue, Suleiman ordered a guard to murder a gruesomely shackled Turkistan prisoner in front of Habib — and he did, with a vicious karate kick.”
It is doubtful whether the Egyptian people would sacrifice hundreds of lives to overthrow a dictator and then settle for his sadistic secret police chief as his replacement.
One of the startling features of the Egyptian uprising was the speed with which it followed Tunisia’s. Democracy protests have spread to other Arab countries, numbering in the tens of thousands in Yemen and Jordan.
However the current struggles end, the genie of democratic struggle has been let out the bottle.
The uprisings have also shown the world the one force that can bring democracy to the Middle East — the people of the region themselves.
The US and its allies have claimed that their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were meant to bring democracy.
In Iraq they claim to have done so. Iraqi “democracy” consists of parties, with affiliated death squads, organised on religious-sectarian lines.
On February 1, Human Rights Watch revealed that security forces controlled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki run a secret torture centre.
In Afghanistan, the fractious coalition of gangsters, warlords and terrorists headed by Hamid Karzai hardly resembles a democratic government either.
The millions of protesters throughout the Arab world today are risking their lives for real democracy, and they won’t be easily swayed.
Veteran anti-imperialist activist and author Tariq Ali addresses a protest organised by the Stop the War Coalition in solidarity with the people of Egypt, London February 5.