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After The Storm

January 8, 2003

After the Storm


CAIRO — Here's a prediction: In the end, 9/11 will have a much bigger impact on the Arab and Muslim worlds than it does on America. Lord knows, 9/11 has been a trauma for us, and our response has been to strike back and install better security. But 9/11 has been a trauma for Arabs and Muslims as well - a shock to their systems that ranks with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the creation of Israel and the 1967 defeat.

For Arabs and Muslims, the shock has been that this act was perpetrated by 19 of their sons in the name of their faith. As a result their religious texts, political systems, schoolbooks, chronic unemployment, media and even their right to visit America have all been spotlighted and questioned - sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

While the shock of 1967 was profound, it ultimately led to very little change in the Arab political or social order. Because the post-'67 shock was blunted by two factors: the existence of the Soviet Union, and Soviet aid, to cushion regimes from the need to reform; and the dramatic rise in oil wealth post-'67, which also bought off a lot of pressures for change.

Today there is no Soviet Union, and because of the huge population explosion in the Arab-Muslim world, there also is not enough oil wealth to buy off pressures anymore. At the same time, thanks to globalization, young Arabs and Muslims have a much better sense of where they stand vis-Ā-vis the world, and how far behind they are in many cases. Finally, because America was the target of 9/11, a refusal to face up to the local factors that produced the 9/11 hijackers runs the risk of a clash with the U.S.

Since 9/11 the Arab-Muslim world has passed through three basic stages: shock, denial and, finally, introspection. It is quite apparent here in Egypt, where, at least in part because of 9/11, issues that people did not feel empowered to discuss publicly are being tentatively aired.

ĀĀThere was a strong collision on Sept. 11 between East and West, between a car and a wall, and you can see the impact on both today,'' remarked the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem. ĀĀYou have become more suspicious, and we will become more progressive. ... Look at Iraq. People do not want to see any Iraqis killed. But few people will speak up for Saddam Hussein now. People are against Saddam, because they know there is no future for tyranny anymore.''

Two weeks ago Egypt's most influential newspaper, Al-Ahram, ran a thoughtful series by President Hosni Mubarak's most important political adviser, Osama el-Baz, cautioning Egyptians against buying into European anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. His articles were triggered by intense criticism of Egypt for broadcasting, on its state-run TV, a docudrama, ĀĀHorseman Without a Horse,'' that drew on the fraudulent anti-Semitic tract ĀĀThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion.''

ĀĀWe must uphold the correct perspective on our relationship with the Jews, as embodied in the legacy of Arab civilization and in our holy scriptures,'' wrote Mr. Baz. ĀĀThis legacy holds that ours is not a tradition of racism and intolerance, that the Jews are our cousins through common descent from Abraham and that our only enemies are those who attack us. ... It is also important, in this regard, that we refrain from succumbing to such myths as ĀThe Protocols of the Elders of Zion' and the use of Christian blood in Jewish rituals.''

In part as a reaction to the religious intolerance unleashed by 9/11, President Mubarak surprised his country last month by announcing that henceforth Jan. 7 would be a national holiday. Jan. 7 is the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) Christmas, and it has now been elevated to equal status with the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. For the first time the president's son, Gamal, attended midnight mass, a visit carried live on Egyptian TV.

After the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohammed Heikal raised the question, in a recent TV interview, of who will succeed President Mubarak, everyone has started talking in public about it, and several Egyptians expressed to me their hope that whenever the transition happens it will be the start of a more formal democratization process.

Will it? Will introspection around the region actually lead to a Stage 4 - fundamental political and economic reform? I suspect that the leaders understand that this is a storm they can't ride out. But they don't know how to change without losing the control they've enjoyed. This tension will be the drama of Arab-Muslim politics for the next decade.

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