Nov 18 2008

Undemocratic Arab regimes Afraid of Obama’s change

Published by at 2:58 pm under Articles

by Daoud Kuttab

It seems like an appropriate enough cartoon. The depiction of the president elect Barack Obama with the US flag behind him and the bubble quoting Obama as saying the change has come to Washington. Looking up to the Obama depiction was an excited Egyptian woman congratulating the African American senator, reminding him not to forget that people around the world have been hoping and praying for his success. This was followed by the Arabic phrase: ‘uqbal inna meaning may the same [change] happen to us.

According to the opposition weekly Sawt al Umma, the cartoon appearing in a major Egyptian daily caused an emergency among the Egyptian leadership. The weekly stated that 150,000 copies of the paper’s first edition were quickly removed from the streets and destroyed and the ‘troublesome’ phrase disappeared from future prints that day. The before and after cartoon depiction appeared in Sawt al Umma.

This is certainly not the first time that a political cartoon has caused powers in our region to be worried about losing their powers. But the paranoia of the Mubarak regime is a reflection of the concern by many Arab autocrats about the Obama euphoria empowering those calling for change. Obama’s victory on the change mantra was not lost to people around the world yearning for political reform.

Jordan’s leading blogger Mohammad Omar ( says that the victory of the son of a Kenyan immigrant gives minorities, immigrants and unrepresented groups hope. Imagine a Palestinian who was born in Jordan fifty or sixty years ago and has tried very hard to be part of the political scene looking at the son of an immigrant in America being elected to the top executive position. The winds of hope don’t stop at the American shores, Omar insists.

The victory of the change candidate was especially noticed by Arab reformers who have been paying a price for daring to question the political status quo. The case of one such political reformer, who is unjustly imprisoned, is Ayman Nour, an Egyptian constitutional lawyer and elected representative whose supporters insist has been suffering in jail for his political ambitions which included his challenge to the seemingly lifelong president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Nour, who is serving a five-year prison term on what his defenders say are trumped-up charges, namely, the forgery of signatures among the thousands submitted when he ran for president. Ironically Egyptian law only requires fifty signatures. Nour, a charismatic secular leader, came in second to Mubarak and far ahead of many well-known opposition figures.

After being officially nominated by the democratic party, Nour wrote to Barack Obama appealing for his help. ” The writer of these lines is a human being, about your age, who was — and still is — dreaming like you of change and reform in his country. However, in our countries legitimate dreams turn into horrifying nightmares!!” (

Last week, and after Obama’s stunning victory, Nour’s supporters were trying to hold a public meeting of their party in Nour’s law office when they were attacked by unknown individuals and the law offices were torched. The local police and fire fighters were conspicuously slow in arriving.

The Egyptian government’s overreaction is a sign of the concern that moderate pro-US Arab regimes fear as a result of the US elections and the de-escalation of the so called War on Terror. As long as ideological Washington was engulfed in this war, repression of genuine democratic activities was ignored. Arab leaders used their special alliance with the Bush Administration in the war on Islamic fundamentalists to act against all opponents including secular opposition like that of Ayman Nour.

Some of Nour’s friends have been assuring his wife and family to be patient just until Obama takes over. They are encouraging them that the Egyptian reformer’s days in prison and isolation are numbered. This sense of optimism is felt throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Shortly after initiating the ill-conceived war on Iraq, the Bush Administration, led by its neocon officials, began a push for democracy in the larger Arab world. This pro reform and democracy initiative didn’t receive wide support, including from Arab reformers and intellectuals. They repeated the story of the birds needing to focus on the hunters fingers and not his tears. Bush’s wars, his approval of torture in Guantanemo and spying within America emptied the pro-reform rhetoric from its value.

Some of the same skeptics are now optimistic. After seeing America at its best, there is a renewed sense of confidence in American-style democracy throughout the world. However, this growing confidence about the possibility of political reform can turn into a disaster if change does in fact stay limited to the American shores. If young reformers in the Arab region are again crushed after the change candidate takes power in Washington, their hopes for genuine reform in the Arab world will be set back for years, once again.

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