August 11, 2006 | World Politics Watch Exclusive

Reform the Only Hope for the Middle East

Despite virtual around-the-clock coverage of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, one important aspect remains poorly understood: the reaction of the 300 million strong “Arab Street.” Turn on any Arab television channel, though, and you can't miss the rage and widespread support for Hezbollah and Hamas: streets roiling with protestors, callers to talk programs denouncing Israel and the United States, and clerics defending Hezbollah and calling for holy war.

Five years after 9/11, the West still struggles to understand this rage that pushes Arab masses to view radical groups as heroic forces of resistance. On one extreme, there are those who indict Islam or Arab culture as the culprit. On the other, there are those who blame it on Israeli aggression and U.S. bias towards Israel. Both are equally simplistic explanations of the contemporary Arab mindset, which is due in large part to the way Arab governments have deliberately nurtured this anger towards Israel, and increasingly the United States, for more than five decades.

After being dominated by foreign powers during the first half of the 20th century, the Arab street was buoyed by hopes of “liberation” following the end of World War II. Instead, colonial rule was replaced with oppressive and inefficient national governments. These regimes have failed to secure economic or social progress and denied political liberties. Most damaging, they redirected the desire of their citizens for a restored sense of pride to an external cause: the liberation of Palestine and the defeat of the “Zionist enemy,” on which they blamed all the region's woes.

Arab nationalism, the misused ideology in these conflicts, was created by Arab Christians in the Levant in the late nineteenth century as a way to unite the Arabic-speaking population of the Middle East and North Africa on a cultural/ethnic ground rather than a religious one — namely Islam. This Arab nationalist ideology eventually became the legitimizing ideology of every Arab dictator. But it failed in its goal to “liberate Palestine” or to create a unified Arab world. The ensuing conflicts with Israel only led from defeat to defeat, deepening feelings of humiliation and frustration. Its main legacy: uniting the Arab public in pain, sorrow and a feeling of humiliation, and increasing its desire to vanquish Israel and thus restore its lost national pride at any cost.

The Arab street's frustrated hopes have thus been a potent tool for generation after generation of Arab leaders to maintain control of power. Saddam did not have the support of the majority of Iraqis, yet he had the support of most of the Arab street; the same applies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or to Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah. Even the non-Arab Iranian President Ahmadenijad understands this. All of them exploit the Arab public's sense of humiliation to mobilize support for their personal ambitions and schemes.

Today, these century-old feelings are being harnessed by the forces of radical Islam to recruit Muslims willing to die for their religion. Their recruiting tactics continue to be successful because so many Arab citizens feel trapped between a lack of hope at home and the dream of restoring lost pride. Which is why, by the tens of thousands, Arabs are ready to die in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere around the world.

Already, there is pressure on the Bush administration from both the right and the left to give up on its dream of a democratic Middle East. This would be a terrible mistake. In the long run, the only way to make the world safer is by giving the Arab citizens hope for a better future. This can only happen when they have a chance to participate in their governments and shape their destiny. It is absolutely crucial that the radicalism we see today among Arab populations not be used to justify a retreat from a reform agenda.

A return to so-called realism, where tyrants are tolerated so long as they keep their restive populations contained and their fiefdoms stable, will only ensure the Middle East remains the world's number one recruiting ground for terrorists. Good governance won't solve every problem of the Middle East, but it must be a part of the solution. While the West will need to continue to protect itself militarily against the terrorist threat, if it continues to ignore the socio-political causes of Arab frustration, there will always be thousands of disillusioned, angry, radicalized youth ready to die for the chance to restore their lost pride and receive an express ticket to heaven.

Khairi Abaza is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former official of the Egyptian Wafd Party.