Obama on the Nile
Known columnist Thomas L. Friedman is considered an «expert» in middle eastern affairs and truthfully, he has devoted a substantial amount of articles to the region. But how expert is really an «expert»?
On June 11 the NY Times published an Thomas L. Friedman article in which Mr Friedman taps himself on the shoulder and keeps reminding us how great a nation the United States are. The article is abound in expressions like «but every once in a while, America does something so radical(the Obama candidacy meaning), so out of the ordinary — something that old, encrusted, traditional societies like those in the Middle East could simply never imagine — that it revives America’s revolutionary “brand” overseas in a way that no diplomat could have designed or planned» or «I have no idea whether Obama will win in November. Whether he does or doesn’t, though, the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important. We’ve surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings«.
The main point o the article is that the US is so much above religious or racial strife, most countries of the Middle East wouldn’t dream of. So he goes on to say:«could a Copt become president of Egypt? Not a chance. Could a Shiite become the leader of Saudi Arabia? Not in a hundred years. A Bahai president of Iran? In your dreams«.
Are things really so? For starters, the main idea is a contradiction in terms. Were the US impervious to racial matters, such a thing wouldn’t be discussed at all, because after all, electing a president that belongs to a minority wouldn’t be such a great issue in a truly secular/race indifferent democracy! For European nations it has been so for many decades, as there have been minority politicians rising to the highest rank from the time of Benjamin Disraely, to present president of France, son of immigrants, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet, for some strange reason, the columnist thinks that the US lead the way in this path.
Are things so in Middle East? On the contrary. The columnist cites Egypt. But Egypt had a black president, Anwar Sadat, that rose to power in 1970, at a time the US had just abolished racial segregation. To the outsider it might not seem much, since Egyptians are dark-skinned after all, but in the Egyptian traditional society first come Arabs from the tribe of Muhammad, then Arabs from the Arabian peninsula, then the indigenous Egyptians/Copts that Mr Friedman cites – the Fellahin, muslim or Christian and finally the blacks. Sadat’s mother was a sudanese black and in Sudan there are three races: yellow, green and black people, with blacks belonging to the lowest social class.
Then we have Syria, where the former «president» Hafez al-Assad, of the military junta that rules since 1964, was an alawite, a heretic to most muslims that is, from a sect that little is known to their muslim neighbours about their religious beliefs.
The Baath party ruled in Iraq as well, where vice-president was a Chaldean Christian Tariq Aziz, from a minority that is less than 5% of the population of modern day Iraq. The Baath party, the party of Arab nationalism, was in fact founded by muslims and Christians Arabs as well, featuring as its ideological father the Greek Orthodox Christian Michel Aflaq.
In Palestine, the late Yasser Arafat was married to Christian Suha Arafat and went regularly to Christmas Mass. The main faction in the PLO, after Arafat’s Fatah, was the PFLP, whose chairman George Habash was a Greek Orthodox Christian, as well as his deputy Wadie Haddad.
Given the long tradition of secular political leaders in the Arab world, what is Thomas Friedman boasting about? What is the radical thing that the possible election of Barak Obama as president of the US will bring home to the Middle East? Mind you, 2 out of 3 countries he mentions, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are strong supporters of american interests in that corner of the world and major US allies. If Egypt is worse off in religious/racial tolerance today, after three decades of US intervention in the area, this is something the US should worry about. But changing the facts, won’t change the present situation. Secular ideologies in the arabic world failed. They failed from the inside, through corruption, brutality and lack of economic growth, as well the outside, mainly via the US policy in the region. But minority politicians in the Middle East rose to top-tiers long before america is about to elect its first black president…