The End of Western Credibility Will Democracy Become Islam's Best Friend?

Millions of people in the Middle East want freedom, just as Eastern Europeans once did. Twenty years ago, the West was a role model, but it betrays its own values. In doing so, it is also strengthening its enemy: militant Islamism.

A Commentary by

REUTERS

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because, in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

George Bush the Younger said that. And one can see: The West wasn't lacking nice words or intelligent insights. What was missing, though, were the right policies -- and, much worse, a belief in our own values.

There aren't many places in the world where Western moral double standards are as glaring as in the Middle East. In the ears of the 1.5 million Palestinians enclosed in the Gaza Strip, Western words like freedom and democracy must sound about as credible as Brezhnev's praise of freedom and socialism to the ears of an occupied Poland.

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Photo Gallery: The Battle for Cairo Continues
Indeed, the West's closest allies are the jailors of the Palestinian people. No other countries have received as much foreign aid from the United States as Israel and Egypt. Most of the money benefits the military -- but the US defense industry profits handsomely as well. The Egyptian air force F16 fighter jets now thundering over the heads of protesters on Cairo's Tahrir Square originate from the USA, as do the M60 tanks used by the Israelis to patrol Gaza.

Whether it is helping to maintain Israel's security, providing free passage through the Suez Canal or ensuring the containment of radical Islam, the Mubarak regime has certainly provided the West with valuable services over the years. And those are, of course, all legitimate interests. The problem is that the West and Israel have used illegitimate means to pursue them. Support for a regime that will soon have ruled for 30 years under emergency laws, defrauding one election after another without even blinking, one that relied on a police force notorious for torture and persecution, was illegitimate.

As Bush correctly stated, "(I)n the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

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Photo Gallery: Clashes in Cairo
Indeed, the era of peace which can be bought is over. In the developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, we could in fact be seeing the awakening of a new era in the Arab world. Perhaps the Arab world is now casting off the yoke of Western-back autocracies just as Eastern Europe rid themselves of Soviet rule 20 years ago. This time, however, the West isn't on the side of the heralds of freedom -- instead they are the allies of the oppressors. It wasn't even a year ago that the German foreign minister praised Mubarak's regime for its "many years of political continuity" and called it an "anchor of stability in the region."

How will the West heal this wound of destroyed credibility? It is certainly not going to happen today. The winds of change turned into a storm some time ago, but not even that has been enough to drive the center of power in Washington to muster clear words on the situation. The US Secretary of State murmured something about an "orderly transition," but the man the world is looking to is keeping silent. US President Barack Obama, it would seem, can think of nothing to say about the urge for freedom of millions of young men in the Maghreb region who are being held hostage by history and the web of Western imperial interests.

A few weeks ago, youth in the Gaza Strip penned perhaps the most poignant rebuke of Western Middle East policies, regardless whether they are formulated in Washington, Paris, London or Berlin. "We want to be free. We want to be able to lead normal lives. We want peace. Are we asking for too much?"

But these youth can't even turn to the West for an answer to their question. It has already shrugged off responsibility.

The risky consequences of this failure are obvious. Militant Islam's greatest ally has always been the West's hypocrisy. Again and again, the West has denied its own values in the Middle East, giving autocracy precedence over democracy. But sometimes people can be strongly influenced by the very things they are fighting against. Autocracy in the Arab regimes is meant to be a bulwark against Islamism?

Now democracy is threatening to become an ally of Islamism. After all, Hamas emerged triumphant in free elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006. The Muslim Brotherhood has now pledged to support a secular Egypt, but how long will that promise hold if the Islamist group comes to power?

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