In post-Mubarak Egypt, the rebirth of the Arab world

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley see in the Egyptian revolution not simply the end of a repressive regime but the rebirth of the Arab world. In the newly emerging Arab world, the new Nasser is Al Jazeera.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, pillars of the Arab order, are exhausted, bereft of a cause other than preventing their own decline. For Egypt, which stood tallest, the fall has been steepest. But long before Tahrir Square, Egypt forfeited any claim to Arab leadership. It has gone missing in Iraq, and its policy toward Iran remains restricted to protestations, accusations and insults. It has not prevailed in its rivalry with Syria and has lost its battle for influence in Lebanon. It has had no genuine impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process, was unable to reunify the Palestinian movement and was widely seen in the region as complicit in Israel’s siege on Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Riyadh has helplessly witnessed the gradual ascendancy of Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region. It was humiliated in 2009 when it failed to crush rebels in Yemen despite formidable advantages in resources and military hardware. Its mediation attempts among Palestinians in 2007, and more recently in Lebanon, were brushed aside by local parties over which it once held considerable sway.

The Arab leadership has proved passive and, when active, powerless. Where it once championed a string of lost causes – pan-Arab unity, defiance of the West, resistance to Israel – it now fights for nothing. There was more popular pride in yesterday’s setbacks than in today’s stupor.

Arab states suffer from a curse more debilitating than poverty or autocracy. They have become counterfeit, perceived by their own people as alien, pursuing policies hatched from afar. One cannot fully comprehend the actions of Egyptians, Tunisians, Jordanians and others without considering this deep-seated feeling that they have not been allowed to be themselves, that they have been robbed of their identities.

Taking to the streets is not a mere act of protest. It is an act of self-determination.

Where the United States and Europe have seen moderation and cooperation, the Arab public has sensed a loss of dignity and of the ability to make free decisions. True independence was traded in for Western military, financial and political support. That intimate relationship distorted Arab politics. Reliant on foreign nations’ largesse and accountable to their judgment, the narrow ruling class became more responsive to external demands than to domestic aspirations.

Alienated from their states, the people have in some cases searched elsewhere for guidance. Some have been drawn to groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, which have resisted and challenged the established order. Others look to non-Arab states, such as Turkey, which under its Islamist government has carved out a dynamic, independent role, or Iran, which flouts Western threats and edicts.

The breakdown of the Arab order has upended natural power relations. Traditional powers punch below their weight, and emerging ones, such as Qatar, punch above theirs. Al-Jazeera has emerged as a full-fledged political actor because it reflects and articulates popular sentiment. It has become the new Nasser. The leader of the Arab world is a television network.

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