9/11: Ten years on

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Monday 12 Sep 2011

It's been 10 years since the tragedy of 9/11 and while US regional policy remains unchanged, the events of the Arab Spring promise to bring about major shifts in the region's relationship with Israel and the US

Ten years on, the face of the Middle East, following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the US, is undoubtedly changing.

After long years of despotism, the Arab world is being shaken by an astonishing storm of revolutions that continues to uproot many of the region’s long-serving dictators and their entrenched regimes.

Unlike their deposed rulers, the emerging political powers will likely adopt a hard line policy towards Israel and distance themselves from the US, suggesting the start of a new historical chapter.

Ten years ago, several explanations were given for the 9/11 attacks. Many reflected deep antagonisms towards the United States.

Some, including US president George W Bush, portrayed them as an assault on the Western lifestyle. A 2007 Gallup world poll suggested otherwise, as not a single Muslim respondent required that the West changes its values to enhance relations with the Muslim world.

The attacks are best understood as an act of protest against US foreign policy. The long support of Israel’s occupation, the heavy post-cold-war military presence in the Middle East and the exploitation of the region’s resources have all led to the rise of anti-Americanism. In his book, Dying to Win, Robert Pape notes that two-thirds of Al-Qaeda terrorists come from countries where the US has a heavy military presence.

The Gallup poll quoted above reveals that 81 per cent of those labelled as 'radical' and 67 per cent of 'moderates' describe the US as aggressive. It is US foreign policy that provoked these unjustifiable attacks.

The form of protest at the time was dictated by the broader context. With authoritarianism prevailing across the region, the overwhelming majorities which opposed US policies were given very little room for protest and constructive action.

Some were patient and insisted on upholding their values and peaceful belief systems while a small minority was dragged into the battle for revenge, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the process. People across the region were largely opposed to the attacks – widely viewed as an assault on humanity – and the policies that provoked them. 

The attacks' aftermath further deepened hostility towards the US, leading to two highly criticised and costly wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. The US also drew the region’s ire after supporting two other wars against Lebanon and Gaza and a siege on Ramallah whilst strongly supporting the region's dictators from Egypt's Mubarak to the royal Abdullahs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Furthermore, the policy of constantly backing Israel in the UN and adopting a biased stance towards nuclear armament has led to further erosion of Washington’s credibility.

Arab revolutions triggered transformational changes in the prevailing mode of protest. Egyptians and Tunisians have successfully ousted their decades old dictators, and a handful of other revolutions are in the making.

These revolutions have discredited the sentiment of violent Islamist groups, which have been advocating the necessity of a militant, purely Islamist vanguard that detaches from society until it is powerful enough to topple the regime and establish an Islamic state. The leaderless, collective movement of Arab people proved to be more successful and consequently delegitimized reliance on violence.

In many ways, therefore, the Arab revolutions killed Osama Bin Laden's project before US forces assassinated him in a mafia-styled operation.

The Arab spring has re-empowered the region's citizens, but has yet to re-orient them. Arabs still seek independence from the United States. According to a post-revolution Gallup poll, two thirds of Egyptians disagree that the US is serious about encouraging democracies, and think the US will try to exert direct influence over Egypt's political future.

They are overwhelmingly hostile towards US intervention in domestic affairs, as 75 per cent oppose US aid to political groups and 52 per cent are opposed to economic aid, widely viewed as a catalyst for political and economic dependence.

The post-revolutionary Arab world is also markedly more hostile towards Israel. The new Tunisian constitution criminalises normalising relations with Israel, and the Egyptian people have made it clear that, despite the will of the interim government, they are not willing to tolerate an Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Statistics reveal that a majority of Egyptians want to annul the peace treaty with Israel. The antipathy behind such sentiments was brought into sharp focus when the country's Twitter community overwhelmingly engaged in ridiculing the recent Israeli protests, mocking hash tag and all. Collectively, these incidents dismantle the narrative adopted by some scholars and media outlets, attempting to portray the Arab spring and Israeli protests as part of a broader Middle East transformation that will breed coexistence.

The Middle East following the recent uprisings will most likely opt for more efficient forms of political protest. Instead of reliance on street protests in the case of non-violent political actors and violent operations in the case of violent ones, Arabs – now in control of their political destiny – will resort to more sophisticated means in pursuit of their interests, utilising state institutions and diplomatic channels. The transformation in Turkish policy vis-à-vis Israel serves as a good example, as the democratic Turkey proved to be more capable of serving the interests of the occupied Palestinians than the repressive and authoritarian Syria.

Egyptians have made it a point to retain their autonomy despite repressive measures adopted by the interim government, and have sent clear messages to the Israelis that Egypt is no longer their strategic asset as it used to be under Mubarak. Eventually, Arabs will pursue foreign policies that are independent from the United States and only reflect their people's interests.

It is wrong to assume that a democratic Arab world will automatically have better relations with the United States or Israel.

Thomas Friedman's argument that democracies don’t fight is only valid when democracies are a true representation of the masses and not merely representations of narrow economic interests touted by elites and occupiers. While the recurrence of terrorist attacks in a post-revolutionary Arab world seems unlikely, it will take a serious shift in US foreign policy to change the views of Arabs.

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