Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 June 2009
Issue No. 952
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Whither Arab critics?

Those who poured scorn on Obama's outreach to Muslims, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*, are long on old rhetoric and short on new solutions to address protracted regional conflicts

During the last US presidential campaign, then Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama visited Berlin where he was greeted by a crowd of 200,000. It was a thrilling spectacle, reminiscent of President Kennedy's visit to that city where he stood beneath the Berlin Wall and called upon Moscow and its Soviet pact allies to tear it down. That unique event during the Cold War dramatically testified to the widespread popularity and powerful charisma of the American leader. Obama wasn't even a president when he went to Berlin. The city was a stop on his campaign trail at a time when his Republican adversaries were charging that he had no foreign policy experience. There wasn't even a Berlin Wall to rail at, that piece of architecture having been torn down in 1989. So what brought out all those throngs to cheer an African-American candidate with a "funny name", as Obama would joke?

Explaining this phenomenon will be the job of historians. But the Republican candidate John McCain was in trouble. He knew very well that if he had gone to Berlin for some reason he wouldn't have drawn an audience of a couple of hundred. In spite of his long career and his expertise in international relations, his global popularity next to his Democratic rival with no such expertise was zilch. Nevertheless, his campaign strategists were not bereft of ruses. They produced a campaign ad juxtaposing a picture of Obama waving to the crowds with a picture of Britney Spears performing in concert, and beneath the picture the caption, "Politics of celebrities!" The implication, of course, was that Obama was a political bimbo, capable of wowing the crowds and playing on their feelings and desires with fancy words, but otherwise all air.

Of course, as we know now, the ruse failed. But that did not keep many Arab intellectuals, who have failed to understand the Obama phenomenon in Berlin and, again, in Egypt, from reaching into the same quiver. In Egypt alone, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal (Nasserist or Arab nationalist, if you wish), Fahmy Howeidy (Islamist) and Ibrahim Eissa (liberal) agreed with Mahdi Akef (Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide) and Azmi Bishara (Arab nationalist) that Obama's address to the Islamic world was a lesson in public relations. That was the "light" way these intellectuals shrugged off the large and enthusiastic turnout to welcome Obama at Cairo University, where students cheered, "We love you, Obama!" Well, these gentlemen couldn't exactly conjure up Britney Spears (I doubt whether the supreme guide has even heard of her), but their message was the same: Obama came all the way over here from Washington in order to lull us and win our affection, not in order to do anything. The US is a country of institutions and no single individual can reinvent it, they argued, as though elections in the US were a kind athletic event, after which spectators cheered or booed, went home and went about business as usual. The US, they said, wants to support the moderate Arab regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) as though these countries had been teetering towards collapse and needed an American presidential address to prop them up. They also said that a very cunning American individual found this an opportune time to toy with the feelings of an elite whose hearts and minds, he believed, had grown so feeble that they were ready to be taken in by any words that were said and needed no proof in deeds. Evidently, to such critics, before stepping foot on the land of Arabs and Muslims our visitor should have razed Israeli settlements and expelled the Jews from the holy land.

So much for that subtle understanding of international politics and diplomacy. In fact, Obama did not come with words alone. He had already set in motion a process to pave the way for the resumption of negotiations and a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. His speech occurred after several deeds, among which were the appointment of George Mitchell as his special envoy on the Palestinian question and a series of meetings with leaders and representatives of the countries of this region. The address, itself, was an action in its own right; presidential speeches are always events that mean more than the literal substance contained in the speeches themselves. Then, barely had the excitement over the speech subsided and Mitchell was back in the region, talking with leaders and officials in this country and that, until he reached Damascus. At that time, Khaled Meshaal was in Cairo and the Lebanese elections were proceeding so smoothly that the Hizbullah-led coalition could accept defeat with no need for a military occupation of Beirut this time. It was also the run-up to the Iranian elections, in which a moderate seemed to stand a fighting chance against a radical that had monopolised the stage for so long.

In short, the politics of change were moving full steam ahead. When Obama visited Berlin he was sending a signal to America's European allies that they were on the threshold of a new order in which there would be closer cooperation between partners in democracy in guiding the world. When he arrived in Cairo, the question was how to shift the footing of relations between the Islamic world and the West from conflicting visions to constructive action based on overlapping interests. In this context, a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause is part of the whole. It is an area capable of tearing the world apart between east and west, or of bringing it together around convergent interests, just as the three revealed religions met in Jerusalem.

Everything that happened before, during and after Obama's visit to Cairo was not "PR". It was politics in action and deeds, in the strictest definition of the term, aimed at changing an intolerable reality. The problem is that such politics in action is coming from one side only: America moves and Israel retorts and digs in its heels. Meanwhile, the Arabs, who have an immediate interest in all this, either opt for silence or spout familiar clichés about fixed principles from which there can be no stepping back. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this approach in principle. After all, Israel is the one occupying Arab territory, meting out misery to the Palestinians and committing no end of offences and crimes that have perpetuated the conflict for so long. However, down here on earth, where the politics of diplomacy is played out, if the task is to change an intolerable situation then something more must be done than to parrot truisms and point to the Arab peace initiative. Exactly what to do must take as its starting point an attempt to answer the question as to what the region will be like after the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, after Israel withdraws from all other occupied territories, after a just solution to the cause of the Palestinian refugees and a conclusion to the conflict that does not jeopardise the existence of Israel. I underscore the latter part of the question, here, because under the laws of the politics of diplomacy there can be no vision for a negotiated solution that ultimately eliminates one of the parties. To think otherwise is to inherently shift the question from the realm of diplomacy to the realm of war.

Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia and then to Egypt was not a PR gambit. It was part of his drive to solve the Palestinian question and it landed the ball not only in the Israeli court but in the Arab court as well. In the Israeli court, the people prepared to reach a historic settlement with the Arabs will make a grab for the ball and the people determined to perpetuate a historic enmity will try to snatch it out of their hands. Over here, in our court, I imagine that the squabble over the ball, if there is one, will take place between those who prefer to wait until the problem solves itself and those who prefer to hand the whole problem over to Obama in the hope that he'll spare us all the trouble of coming up with solutions. I wonder, will there emerge a new Arab trend keen upon resolving a conflict that has caused no end of distress to people everywhere for decades and that will have the courage to come up with some answers to questions no one likes to think about?

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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