Obama as an Arab reformer
"The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not," Obama said. In other words, all these declarations of independence after the retreat of colonialism were nothing more than a deception. Because, as the president said, "In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few."
Many years of Arab "independence" did not bring prosperity. They brought neither work nor social welfare, neither freedom nor creativity. Corrupt and oppressive rulers lined their pockets and handed over these corrupt and oppressive governments to their successors, whether through palace coups or by bequeathing control of the country to sons or cronies.
The mass demonstrations all over the Arab world do in fact indicate more than anything else "a longing of freedom" that has been building up for years, as Obama said. This yearning for freedom is an essential part of human nature everywhere. Thanks to globalization and to the technological developments that have made it possible for information to reach every corner of the planet, the gates of the modern world have opened. Young Arabs in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus or anywhere else in the Arab world compared their lives with those of young people in other parts of the world, and they too began to yearn for freedom and for lives as free people, like the young people of London, Paris, Tokyo and New York.
On the other hand, there has been a steady unplanned increase in the population of the Arab world over the years, and education has stagnated and sunk into the world of yesterday, longing for an imaginary past. The rulers and their cronies continued to oppress the people and become rich at their expense. Failing universities sent millions of degree holders out to the labor market, without any possibility that they would get productive jobs. As international reports have noted for years, there is not a single Arab university to be found among the 500 best universities in the world.
So it is no surprise that even though the Arab world has a population of hundreds of millions, its exports are equal to those of a small country like Switzerland. The rulers of the Arab world rested on their laurels - or rather, on their countries' deposits of oil and natural gas. And the momentum of economic development in these countries is deceptive, since those who stand behind it - oil companies, scientists, engineers and even the construction workers who build the skyscrapers and the artificial islands, are generally not Arab.
Populism has reigned in Arab discourse. It was not only the rulers who betrayed their people. The intelligentsia cooperated with the rulers, in return for crumbs. There is a well-known Arabic saying about such people: If you see a cleric knocking often at the ruler's door, be aware that he is a thief. And in fact, it was clerics as well as political leaders who attributed the ills of the Arab world to colonialism and the West, and even to Israel, to the point where "antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression," as Obama put it.
It should also be noted that one of the main reasons for the chronic ills of the Arab world is the attitude toward women. The tribal, patriarchal Arab society has blocked the path for women, and by doing so has silenced half of society. "History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered," Obama said, correctly.
Had any Arab leader delivered the speech in Arabic and addressed an Arab audience, Arabs would probably be saying: Behold, an Arab king has arisen. But for the time being, although there are kings, presidents, sultans and princes in abundance, there has yet to be a king like Martin Luther.
Published: Op-Ed, Haaretz, 25 May 2011
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