All of us in the West took a ring-side seat to watch in jubilation as Tunisia and Egyptian protesters recently managed the unthinkable: the non-violent overthrow of their countries’ repressive, corrupt political regimes.
As other countries in the Middle East — Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan — follow suit, we cheer them on with the tacit thought that it’s about time they all embraced our political and economic values, became open and fair democracies – became, in effect, just like us.
It’s clear that Egyptians as a people want an open and democratic society. According to Time magazine, a majority of Egyptians believe democracy is the most preferable style of government; 90 per cent of Egyptians support freedom of religion, 80 per cent support free speech and 75 per cent are opposed to censorship.
Much of the press about Egypt has focused on its ‘backward,’ ‘corrupt’ and ‘repressive’ regime, which cracked down on political parties, and silenced newspaper criticism or open intellectual forum.
‘Over the past three decades Egypt became a place where few serious books were written, universities were monitored, newspapers carefully followed a bland party line and people watched what they said in public,’ a February 3 Time magazine article by Fareed Zakaria noted recently. ‘In the past 10 years, the war against Islamic terrorist groups . . . allowed Mubarak’s regime to clamp down even harder on Egyptian society in the name of security.’
In the three decades since I’ve lived away from the US, America has become a place where less and less criticism of a regime is tolerated, in the name of ‘national security’; where newspapers, now governed by vast corporations, follow a bland party line; where people are careful about what they say— about gun control, for instance — lest they be considered un-American; and where laws and lawmakers are mostly bought and paid for by lobbyists and powerful corporations.
In the 10 years since 9/11, the war against Islamic terrorist groups has allowed the government to remove many civil liberties and create repressive laws in the name of security.
A recent BBC documentary about the rise of the homeless in the US, for instance, was not aired in America; a well-researched British book questioning the cause of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was never published in the States.
Several years after the World Trade Center attacks, Vanity Fair, virtually alone among American publications, finally revealed aspects of the events to Americans already well known by Europeans, such as the fact that during the countrywide flight ban imposed immediately after the attacks, one of the only flights permitted by the Bush government was carrying members of the bin Laden family.
Although I am certainly not suggesting that the West has the same level of repression as a Middle Eastern country like Egypt, but - while we’re talking about ‘free’ and ‘open’ and ‘democratic’ - we should acknowledge that a country like America is getting less open and democratic by the day.
Yardstick of fairness
The other cause of the Arab spring was a deep yearning for a fairer society. As I’ve mentioned in these pages before, a fundamental impulse within us, as powerful and fundamental as eating and sex, is the need for fairness, for our fair share and only our fair share.
Within any society a sense of fairness spontaneously evolves as a basic part of society. Fairness is the ultimate and most constant yardstick we use to measure the worth of our society, even our neighborhoods.
Throughout history the fact that there is a wealthy group of individuals at the top of a society has not automatically made for revolution. Poorer levels of society are usually prompted to rise up in rebellion only when conditions are manifestly unfair, such as when food is deliberately made scarce.
In the wake of the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 the fury that most ordinary citizens felt toward bankers and traders had nothing to do with income resentment but a deep and compelling sense of unfairness that investment houses like Goldman Sachs still paid record bonuses after the recession they had helped to create caused so many others to lose their jobs.
In Britain Sir Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, unapologetically paid himself a £700,000 pension (about $1.05 million) despite the bank’s sustaining, under his stewardship, the largest corporate loss in history, requiring a £24 billion government bailout.
Shortly thereafter aggrieved citizens attacked his Edinburgh villa and smashed his Mercedes S600. A statement sent to the Edinburgh Evening News read, “We are angry that rich people like him are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute, and homeless.
Lessons for the West
The lessons of the Middle East are salutary and extend beyond a case of one style of government being replaced by another. They stand as a moral to the West about the long-term consequences of unfairness.
At the moment, the West is at its most unfair in history. America houses half the world’s billionaires and yet tent cities like “Dignity Village” in Oregon, for people who have lost their homes through mortgage foreclosures, number among America’s fastest growing neighborhoods.
Even the current outcry in Wisconsin against threatened deep governmental cuts is not a partisan issue but a cri du coeur about intolerable unfairness.
Like the Middle East, the growing protests across America signal that the US may be ripe for its own uprising against the growing economic divide and a government largely run by the corporate machine.
Even more fundamental than democracy is fairness, and when it is not present, a society will insist on it. To borrow from Sylvia Plath, the bloodjet of any society is fairness: “there is no stopping it.”
When conditions are so manifestly unfair between the haves and the have-nots, people will tend to demand a fairer society, one way or another.
Now is the time for all of us to look to the Arab world in hopes that it becomes a place where a new vision and a fairer democracy can be born — not just like us but better than us. And then perhaps the West can follow suit.