Poke around conversations in the cafés up and down Dubai’s creek, the gold souks of downtown Jeddah, or in the privacy of a million homes across the vast Arab landscape and you might hear good things being said about the US President George W. Bush.
Intellectuals, businessmen and working class people alike can be caught these days lauding Bush’s hard-edged posture on democracy in Arab lands, cheering his irreverent handling of Middle Eastern rulers who are US allies as he puts pressure on them to hold free elections, release political prisoners and open trade.
And, it is very much an open secret that millions of ordinary Arabs openly embrace Bush’s unvarnished threats against Syria should it fail to pull its soldiers and spies out of Lebanon before the elections there next month.
It may not add up to a love fest for Bush in Arabia as much as it is a celebration by exponentially growing numbers of Arabs of their own liberation.
From Casablanca to Kuwait City, what Bush says mirrors, reinforces and, in fact, reflects what has long been in the heart: A yearning for human rights, justice, freedom, rule of law, transparency, limits on power and women’s rights. In short civilisation as we know it today in the 21st century.
The call for these most basic of rights has been murmured for a long time, but a confluence of events starting with the Arab satellite revolution of the past decade to the most recent assassination of Rafik Hariri on February 14 has transformed it into something resolute.
Its intensity differs vastly from country to country, but a common feature underpinning everything is the lifting of that fear which for decades has constricted the Arab mind.
People, men and women, are less worried about getting hurt or arrested than about conveying what is on their minds.
Regardless of Bush’s intentions - which many Arabs and Muslims still view with suspicion - the US president and his neoconservative crowd are helping to spawn a spirit of reform and a new vigour to confront dynastic dictatorships and other assorted ills in the Greater Middle East.
It is enough for someone like me and most of my liberal friends, who have long felt that Bush’s attitude toward the Middle East was all wrong, to wonder whether his idea of setting the Arab and Muslim house in order first may not in fact be the right approach to wider justice in the region.
Of course it is still early for congratulations.
Bush may feel inspired by the example of Ronald Reagan who told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin in 1989, but the Middle East may more closely resemble Beijing where a totalitarian Chinese Communist government crushed the liberation movement that same year.
One cannot but wonder what will the US policy in the Middle East look like if the autocrats and religious fundamentalists make a stand against the voices of freedom heard all over the place.
The answer will have to be found in the Arab streets, in free elections in Palestine, Iraq, and hopefully elsewhere, in the demonstrations of Beirut and Cairo and many more and in the courageous stand taken by Kuwaiti women last week when they demanded in public demonstrations too the right to vote.
“The answer is within us, not anywhere else,’’ said a nameless young man, one of the thousands who waved Lebanese flags in Beirut’s Martyrs Square the other day to a television interviewer.
In other words, the groundswell itself is the only guarantee of its survival, with more Arabs than ever baring their souls, showing no fear.
By now all the world knows the slogan for this nascent peoples’ Arab revolt is kifaya (enough) a word which will enter dictionaries, just as the Palestinian intifida did.
It is both emphatic and vague enough to be all encompassing yet effective: enough of autocrats, enough corruption, enough occupation and enough repression. It has acquired magical and perhaps lasting power.
The Americans saw it and came to give a push for their own motives and reasons. That is nice, but whether they stay or not should not be a determining factor. What does matter is the staying power of the movement itself.
An analyst of the Arab condition, Abdulmoneim Saeed, argued last week in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al Awsat that the “enough” movement can already claim an important achievement - sweeping aside the tired arguments that Arabs and Muslim societies have “special circumstances, special traditions and special cases” which preclude those societies from sharing universal democratic principles.
Indeed, a notable voice, Egypt’s guru of Arab nationalism, author and writer Mohammad Hassanein Haykal, has pronounced 2005 “the year of the big scare”.
In his second inaugural address this past February, Bush proclaimed America’s commitment to spreading democracy by saying: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
Maybe so and there are numerous indications he meant what he said. But this isn’t the first time that Bush has encouraged Arabs to rise up against their oppressors.
In 1991, Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush egged on Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to revolt, only to abandon them when Saddam Hussain cracked down.
Arabs must not wait for Bush but lead the way and not shrink away when the counter attack begins, remembering well that not a single autocrat will ever be a willing participant in democratic reform.
So one is left to wonder if this moment will last more than a moment, whether it will turn into a repeat of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or whether it will be a reprise of the truncated Beijing Spring.
For now, all the Middle East has are demonstrators and brave voters who, ballot by imperfect ballot, e-mail by e-mail are burying a culture of fear. And for the moment, that may be enough.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is Managing Director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group.