Register Tuesday | June 19 | 2018

Tunisia > Egypt > World?

Western politicians don't get to have any real fun.  Their inspired moments always seem to come before life's main events, their proclamations of justice and freedom are belted out only when there is little chance of anything significant happening.

There is something significant happening now.

After thirty years of one man's oppressive totalitarian rule, the people of Egypt are beginning to imagine life without Hosni Mubarak.  And what does Barack Obama have to say?  "An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now."  Such insight!  Such passion!

Nearly simultaneously, Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has retreated in shame.  Misogynist, terrifying, corrupt governments across the Middle East are on the verge of collapse.  Surely all of this is a solid step in the direction of democracy; yet never to be outdone in fuddy-duddiness, Stephen Harper has also opted to keep his mouth shut to avoid stoking the flames of unrest.

When the shit hits the fan, why do the leaders of democratic nations not step up and promote the ideals of fairness?  Looking in hindsight at the fall of the USSR, I see a lot of the same patterns.

There are lots of reasons the Middle East and Berlin should not be compared, but I believe there's something to be learned.  In 1989, when I was seven, I remember adults saying how important a time it was.  Jubilant Berliners swept through the city's streets and the media bombarded the western world with happy news.

Leading up to the fall of the iron curtain, western leaders loved to talk shop about democracy.  Presidents and Prime Ministers found the Berlin wall an easy symbol for democracy's alternative, a way for Americans to feel well off by comparison. 

"Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us," said President Kennedy in his famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech of 1963.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan famously told Mikhail Gorbachev, "If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

But when the wall finally came down, the President wasn't so pumped.  In all his excitement, Bush 1 could only describe the wall's destruction as "A dramatic happening for East Germany and freedom." 

"I'm elated... I'm just not an emotional kind of guy," he said. 

While Bush's right hand shook with Germany's leaders over the world's most obvious democratic triumph, his left was submerged in the totalitarian cocktail of Middle Eastern oil politics.  In fact, the American government had been deeply embroiled in the Middle East's controversial finances since at least 1985.

It's no secret that America and Canada have a keen interest in the oil wealth of certain desert states.  We have used the absence of democracy in the Middle East as an excuse to attack, manipulate and generally abuse the natural resources wealth of the same people who suffer from said absence.  By force or, more frequently, through negotiations and allegiances with people like Mubarak, Americans and Canadians have enjoyed success at the expense of the Arab world at large.

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond threaten to thwart decades of backroom dealing.  A working democracy is one that bridges the gap between rich and poor, and promotes the equality of all people.

Yet while democracy and prosperity have gone hand in hand for my entire life, recent economic problems are changing that.  The less democracy produces cash in the hands of its voters, the harder it is for politicians to gain their trust.  And more democracy in the Middle East means less cash in North American hands.  It is no wonder neither Obama nor Harper have piped up.

It is easy to say that iron-fisted rulers should be replaced with democratic governments; it is entirely different to effect that change when those iron fists co-sign your loans.

It's coming to America first

The cradle of the best and the worst

It's here they got the range

And the machinery for change

And it's here they've got the spiritual thirst

—Leonard Cohen, "Democracy"

Peter Braul is a Montreal based writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—No Man's Land
—Revolution of the two Ahmads
—Born Here

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