“The Arab World Is On Fire”

by James M. Wall

Uri Avnery, veteran and venerable Israeli peace activist, captured the moment:

What is happening now in Egypt will change our lives.

As usual, nobody foresaw it. The much-feted Mossad was taken by surprise, as was the CIA and all the other celebrated services of this kind. Yet there should have been no surprise at all – except about the incredible force of the eruption. . . .

The turmoil in Egypt was caused by economic factors: the rising cost of living, the poverty, the unemployment, the hopelessness of the educated young. But let there be no mistake: the underlying causes are far more profound.They can be summed up in one word: Palestine. In Arab culture, nothing is more important than honor. People can suffer deprivation, but they will not stand humiliation.

In Egypt, as the life-changing events unfolded, courageous Western journalists were on the scene, under attack from President Mubarak’s forces in his last desperate attempt to hold on to power.  They came there because they knew the revolution that began in Tunisia had reached Egypt.

These journalists were not in Gaza during Israel’s attack on a trapped civilian population in December, 2008. They were not there because Israel barred them from entering Gaza. More importantly, they were not there because their editors, conditioned to faithfully follow Israel’s narrative, did not send them there.

The Israeli control over its narrative finally, and definitively, imploded in Cairo in 2011, because of the courage and determination of the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square, where what happened, in Uri Avnery’s words, “will change our lives”.

Among the journalists who risked their lives in Tahrir Square was New York Times columnist  Nicholas Kristof, who concluded his Friday column:

Whatever Mr. Mubarak is planning, it does feel as if something has changed, as if the Egyptian people have awoken. When I needed to leave Tahrir Square today, several Egyptians guided me out for almost an hour through a special route so that I would not be arrested or assaulted — despite considerable risk to themselves. One of my guides was a young woman, Leila, who told me: “We are all afraid, inside of us. But now we have broken that fear.”

The lion-hearted Egyptians I met on Tahrir Square are risking their lives to stand up for democracy and liberty, and they deserve our strongest support — and, frankly, they should inspire us as well. A quick lesson in colloquial Egyptian Arabic: Innaharda, ehna kullina Misryeen! Today, we are all Egyptians!

Kristof eloquently describes what is now fully exposed as a brutal dictatorship, whose collapse sends a warning to the shaky thrones of the Middle East, from Tel Aviv to Damascus, Amman, and Riyadh in the Levant, and in the Arab states in the Maghreb of North Africa.

Who are the ehna (the we) that Kristof calls to be Egyptians (Misryeen) innaharda (literally, in the light of this day)?

We encompass the kullina (all of us) who are called to support the bravery, the fortitude, the remarkable restraint, and the demand for freedom expressed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this past week.

And, most importantly, the ehna are the kullina who must now join those Misryeen and demand “enough and no more”.

The revolution came suddenly, at least it did for those who were not paying attention. It started in Tunisia, as Noam Chomsky wrote in In These Times:

“The Arab world is on fire,” al-Jazeera reported on January 27, while throughout the region, Western allies “are quickly losing their influence.”

The shock wave was set in motion by the dramatic uprising in Tunisia that drove out a Western-backed dictator, with reverberations especially in Egypt, where demonstrators overwhelmed a dictator’s brutal police.

What say the ruling powers about this “fire” as the largest domino in the region prepares to fall? The Christian Science Monitor reports this reaction in Israel and within the Palestinian Authority leadership:

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority officials fear the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might prompt Cairo to ease access to Gaza, and help Hamas consolidate its rule there.

Egypt has the keys to Gaza’s only border not controlled by Israel. That leaves President Mubarak’s successor, whoever it may be, with the option to open up the stifled territory of 1.5 million to trade and civilian traffic, or to continue the restrictions that weigh on the economy and the Islamic militant government there.

The US is struggling to find its footing. Marc Lynch, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, writes on his Foreign Policy blog that President Obama must walk a delicate line between the US’s long alliance with Egyptian rulers and the passionate protests that are overturning the establishment.

What do the protestors expect from Obama? Lynch writes:

Their protest has a dynamic and energy of its own, and while they certainly want Obama to take their side forcefully and unequivocally they don’t need it.

What they do need, if they think about it, is for Obama to help broker an endgame from the top down — to impose restraints on the Egyptian military’s use of violence to repress protests, to force it to get the internet and mobile phones back online, to convince the military and others within the regime’s inner circle to ease Mubarak out of power, and to try to ensure that whatever replaces Mubarak commits to a rapid and smooth transition to civilian, democratic rule. And that’s what the administration is doing.

The administration’s public statements and private actions have to be understood as not only offering moral and rhetorical support to the protestors, or as throwing bones to the Washington echo chamber, but as working pragmatically to deliver a positive ending to a still extremely tense and fluid situation.

Israeli leaders are largely silent, after initially demanding, unsuccessfully, Obama’s full support for Mubarak.

Israel relied on Mubarak to police Gaza’s southern border, thereby tainting Egypt as a partner in the crimes Israel has committed against Gaza.

Israel’s generated fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, as usual, is exaggerated. The government that succeeds Mubarak’s dictatorship may not be as strongly influenced by the Brotherhood as Israel has warned.

Hannah Allam writes from Cairo for McClatchy Newspapers, that even the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the curve, when the fire started:

The Muslim Brotherhood, long relegated to the fringes of Egyptian politics, is playing a growing role in the popular revolt against President Hosni Mubarak, but is still defining its goals for the country, according to political analysts familiar with the Islamist movement.

Under the one-party regime that Mubarak ran for three decades, the mostly mainstream Brotherhood was officially outlawed but generally tolerated. Still, it went on to become Egypt’s best-organized political movement, claiming 400,000 members.

That would be 400,000 Brotherhood members in a population of 83 million Egyptians. Long demonized by the US and Israel as a fundamentalist party akin to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Brotherhood has its fundamentalist element (as do the Republicans, with their “Tea Party”), but the Brotherhood, and the rest of the Egyptian population, have the potential to create a Middle Eastern democracy more along the lines of a secular Turkey, than one that would follow the Taliban model.

Hannah Allam spoke with Alaa al Aswany, an acclaimed Egyptian novelist, about the role of the Brotherhood in any future Egyptian government. Aswany supports the anti-government protesters. His response:

“The role and influence of the Brother Muslims have been exaggerated intentionally by the Egyptian regime for years, just to send the message to the West that either you accept the dictatorship in Egypt or prepare for another Taliban or Hamas in power. This is not true at all.”

Rami G. Khouri, Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon, is a reliable Palestinian scholar on Arab affairs. He urges patience.

On February 4, he wrote:

The process at hand now in Tunisia and Egypt will continue to ripple throughout the entire Arab world, as ordinary citizens realize that they must seize and protect their birthrights of freedom and dignity. . . .

The Americans needed 300 years to transition from slavery to civil rights and women’s rights. Self-determination is a slow process that needs time. The Arab world is only now starting to engage in this exhilarating process, a full century after the false and rickety statehood that drunken retreating European colonialists left behind as they fled back to their imperial heartlands.

It takes time and energy to re-legitimize an entire national governance system and power structure that have been criminalized, privatized, monopolized and militarized by small groups of petty autocrats and thieving families. . . . .

Make no mistake about it, we are witnessing an epic, historic moment of the birth of concepts that have long been denied to ordinary Arabs: the right to define ourselves and our governments, to assert our national values, to shape our governance systems, and to engage with each other and the rest of the world as free human beings, with rights that will not be denied forever.

Former US President Jimmy Carter delivered a peace treaty (some would say, forced a peace treaty) on Israel and Egypt in 1979. Both nations responded by building up their respective military forces with US funds, at the expense of their own public. Israel, for its part, showed its gratitude to Carter by immediately violating its Camp David agreement, expanding its settlements in occupied Palestinian land.

Since leaving office in 1981, Carter has become increasingly vocal in his anger over this betrayal. Israel responded, with the support of its American media, political and business allies, by attacking Carter.  The latest attack–a law suit against Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid–was launched by six citizens of Israel, two of whom hold dual citizenship as Americans.

Jason Ditz, writing for Anti-War.com, treated the bogus law suit with the disrespect it deserves:

In a move that calls back to the attempt by Texas cattlemen to sue Oprah Winfrey for “defamation of beef.,” an Israeli lawyer has filed a class-action lawsuit against former President Jimmy Carter, seeking $5 million in damages because his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” allegedly defamed Israel.

Attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner insisted that Carter’s book violated New York State’s Consumer Protection Laws by asserting things, largely that Israel was not inherently reasonable and Syria was not inherently unreasonable, that “even a child” knows is untrue.

The Washington Post, consistent with its adherence to the Israeli narrative, greeted the lawsuit with a seriousness it did not deserve. In the Post’s Political Bookworm column, Stephen Lowman wrote, ironically, during the Tahrir protests:

From the outset, Carter’s book was criticized in some quarters for being one-sided. For instance, in his [2005] review for The Washington Post, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is being marketed as a work of history, but an honest book would, when assessing the reasons why the conflict festers, blame not only the settlements but also take substantial note of the fact that the Arabs who surround Israel have launched numerous wars against it, all meant to snuff it out of existence.”

This too, for Carter, will pass. Meanwhile, the 1979 peace treaty Carter orchestrated with Israel and Egypt, has been exploited and manipulated through suppression of the Egyptian population, and the humiliation and brutalization of the Palestinian people. That could not last. The Tahrir Square uprising demonstrated why this is so.  We are all Misryeen today.

The picture above from the New York Times, was taken Friday, February 4, in Tahrir Square by John Moore of Getty Images.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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16 Responses to “The Arab World Is On Fire”

  1. Robert H Stiver says:

    My mind, heart and soul are with the people of Egypt. I read this morning that Copts were linking arms in Tahrir Square, protecting their Muslim brethren as they engaged in prayer. I wrote to friends: “How heartening, how noble, how…Christian!” (Uri Avnery’s article, extracted above, is a special treasure and must be read in its entirety. I regret the fact that I could not find the URL.)

  2. wallwritings says:

    Bob, The URL for Uri Avnery ‘s full essay is available by clicking on his name. The URL is http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/82899.
    For readers not familiar with links, your computer should show you a name or a title that is underlined. By clicking on the underlined material, you go straight to the link. Thanks for calling this to my attention. Jim

  3. Bill Gepford says:

    The Egyptians, and the rest of us “Misryeen” are finally beginning to understand the word, community. Communities can heal themselves as long as they understand that we all are to be held accountable and responsible for the our common future. Buiilding solid and healthy individuals and the communities in which we live, requires the discipline to meet problems head on, according to Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled.” The Egyptian protesters are meeting their problems “head on.” And we should support that.

  4. John Kleinheksel says:

    JIm, Thanks for a thorough summary of where things are at the present uncertain moment, and the tight rope the Obama wonks are walking. One wonders just how much influence the United States has over there. Maybe on this ME country we will be on the right side of history instead of on the wrong side when it comes to Our Friends. JRK

  5. Chris says:

    Jim, Great post. We disagree on a lot, but I’m proud to be with you on this one:

    American Fundamentalists Worry About Egyptian Fundamentalists, http://tinyurl.com/46rdz3y (Houston Chronicle blogs).

    I echo what John said, let’s hope our country lines up on the right side of history this time.

  6. Nahida Halaby Gordon says:

    As always, your commentary is thoughtful and welcomed. I see the revolution in Egypt as a revolution not only against Husni Mubarak but a revolution against colonial and imperial meddling. I cheer as I see the Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, struggling for their freedom.

  7. Rick says:

    I have gone to a few of the rallies in NYC to support the Egyptian revolt against its dictatorship. The rallies have been uplifting. Christians, Jews and secularists have stood alongside their Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters from Egypt to demand that the oppression end, and the Mubarak leaves office.

    Mubarak has indeed, not only oppressed his people, but colluded in the opression of the Palestinians with Israel, and, alas, our own country. The Egyptians are trying to obtain liberty, but also trying to restore their honor by not turning their backs any longer, on the Palestinian people.
    When will the US restore its honor and stand up for the human rights of the Palestinian people, and demand that Israel end its cruel occupation and oppression of the non Jews of Palestine? Isn’t it time we stood up for human rights and squarely against Israeli apartheid?

  8. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    You are right, “The Arab World is Burning” and “Kullina Misryeen”. Today, all Arabs and all people suffering from tyranny, occupation and apartheid are Misryeen (Egyptian). I have a few other comments on the situation:
    – We should not allow Israel to change the media topic and focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. The focus should remain on barring the primary potential “hijackers of the Revolution” who are the military- intelligence top echelon who have been already groomed and nurtured for over 30 years by Israel-US, in anticipation of post Revolution Plan B.
    – What are over 50,000 Americans currently doing in Egypt? It happens to be the same number of US personnel remaining in Iraq after the US officially exits the country.
    – The Muslim Brotherhood is rather limited in its popularity (25-30%).
    The Muslim Brotherhood was an ally of Britain and the US back in the 1950’s and 60’s when they supported Britain in building an “Islamic” front (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan) that was supposed to also include Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries to combat the “secular” Arab Nationalist front that was non-alligned. Admittedly the Brotherhood is different today, but it is still more of the Turkish conservative style than that of any other model.
    – If the US overtly supports democracy in Egypt and places US interests above those of Israeli occupation, it can attract allies to the US without paying them a dime.

  9. The Rev. Daphne Grimes says:

    May our allies not be dictatorial and repressive governments, but with the people who are now awakening to their basic rights and may the people not kowtow to another militant and represive leadership. May the US for once back the right cause. Allies that repress others are not allies.

  10. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim: What has happened in Egypt will indeed change our lives. Only I am not sure for good or bad or what have you. I hope that it will be a democracy without Islam dictating its religion. That is to say, a truly free democracy based on a full human rights grant. Nothing is for sure. The young people who are demanding that Mubarak must go have in mind a true democracy. We can only pray that the military will give it to them. Harris

  11. Patricia Pynchon says:

    no comment. I am waiting for our foreign policy to become rational and humane’ Can it really think in terms of what is best for other nations, not just how to dominate them?– so far it has squashed democratic attempts and elections, it has endorsed criminal behavior on Israel’s part Let us see if it takes any actions, or displays humane leadership.

  12. Eugene V. Fitzpatrick says:

    My take on the phenomenon is that it’s virtually entirely on the basis of the proletariat’s economic woes, which you specifically noted, combined with despair at redress. I think you give too much weight to the plight of Palestine as causative. Yes, 115% of the protestors despise Israel but I didn’t hear ‘man in the street’ commiseration with Gaza, for example. I didn’t see either placards supporting Palestine or Pal. flags. The Egyptians have not been seen conspicuously holding up the torch for justice in Palestine for decades. They didn’t get overly exercised about the ongoing rape of Gaza or about Egypt’s slamming closed the Rafah gate. The jury is definitely out as far as the occurence of Egyptian relief of Palestine’s agony.

  13. Noushin Framke says:

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but i have read signs in Arabic about Israel out there in Tahrir Sq…Trust me, the man on the street cares about what they have done to the Palestinians in favor of Israelis, and been paid for it in billions! Amazing though, that we have not seen anti-American signs…. As for the 50,000 Americans installed there, i remember when the Shah left Iran, there were 50,000 American families there – we just need to have ‘our man’ there, doesn’t matter where, (tho oil helps) as long as we have one or two – and they do as we say….

    Speaking of “our man,” read about the business connections of Obama’s emissary to Cairo last week, Frank Wisner?. See here for Robert Fisk on the webs we weave: http://counterpunch.org/wisner02072011.html
    and don’t miss the editor’s note at the bottom – it’s a doozie!

  14. Ed Thompson says:

    Keep up your wonderful blogs that integrate, challenge and stimulate us to keep our religious and American values in sharp focus.

  15. John F. Kane says:

    Jim — I await your further comment on US/Obama moves — whether the “go slow” signals are actually prudent, or a cover for betraying the revolution even while seeming to support it. John

  16. Rick says:

    Mubarak worked closely with the US and Israel to economically strangle the people of Gaza, and does not help them in their desparate situation. One only hopes that a new Egyptian government will help the people of Gaza in any way they can. Egypt has colluded far too long with the cruel and illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza.

    As far as religious nationalism goes, where in the world is it worse than in Israel, where there are roads for Jews only and settlements for Jews only, and a set of laws for Jews and another set for non Jews? Israel has become an example of extreme religious nationalism, that dismisses equal rights for others, whether they are Christians, Muslims or secularists. Our government gives billions of dollars a year to Israel as grants that support Israeli apartheid.

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