On 9/11, I was in Beirut with the UN envoy for the Middle East peace process and with the late former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, watching on television with disbelief as the twin towers came down. The next day, we traveled in a nearly empty aircraft across Israeli airspace to Cairo. We were met by Ahmad Maher, then the Egyptian foreign minister, who during our meeting broke down in tears and said, “I am really scared, I don’t know what to do.”
His words summed up the bewilderment and hopelessness that descended on the Middle East from Cairo to Beirut to Iraq to Saudi Arabia. It was a time when the hopes and fears of more than 240 million Arabs were effectively hijacked by just 20 of their fellow men; average age, 24. What came next for Arabs was a conflict that would dominate the next decade — one for which they were neither responsible nor in agreement with.
Fast forward to 2011, and a new generation of under-30s is shaping an entirely new region. In this extraordinary season of change, their Arab Awakenings have managed to throw off the debilitating narratives of the recent past. Hopelessness has been swept away as they attempt to reclaim control of their destinies.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and throughout the region, a younger generation has used largely peaceful, nonviolent methods to lead entire nations to overthrow their stale, corrupt and repressive regimes. Their calls for justice, freedom and democracy have proved infinitely more effective in mobilizing the young people of the region.
The previous decade was defined by “the war on terror” and its “fight against Islamist extremism.”
It was a paradigm foisted on the world by a U.S. president who waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and resorted too often to the binary language of “them and us.” To many Arabs, their daily struggles with stagnant, unresponsive and repressive regimes were subsumed to the omnipresent narrative of a fight against Islamist extremists.
They and the universal democratic values they wanted were forgotten in their leaders’ pursuit of another goal: the destruction of al Qaeda and its affiliates and the prized head of Osama bin Laden. In pursuit of those goals, the West, in particular the United States, was accused of siding with autocratic regimes that effectively proved their indispensability as guardians against extremism and as bulwarks for stability.
The West’s al Qaeda obsession and the invasion of Iraq that resulted in particular were triumphs for Bin Laden and his followers.
His goal was to rally all Muslims in an endless fight against the “Western Zionist infidels” and create the perfect Islamist caliphate. For a while, there seemed no alternative to the binary world that Bin Laden and his enemies had created and the Bush administration supplemented.
Extraordinarily, one act of suicide — that of Mohamed Bouazizi in a small town in Tunisia — changed all that. The street vendor set himself on fire in protest after a police officer humiliated him, setting off a popular uprising that would topple Tunisia’s authoritarian president.
From this act of desperation, not vengeance, has emerged the promise of a new beginning and a new Arab world. Throughout the region, there is a sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel when only a few years earlier there seemed none.
The Arab world’s response to the death of Bin Laden has, perhaps not unsurprisingly, been contradictory. Though there has been condemnation of the United States, there has also been a mixture of ambivalence and rejoicing.
It belies a growing self-confidence amongst at least some in the Arab world to bring about change. The killing of Bin Laden has also, notably, raised fears that Western interests will once again focus on the conflict with extremists. Arabs themselves want to move on and are in no mood to go back to the past.
The killing of Bin Laden has also been accompanied by calls to the outside world to take notice of the Arab struggle. This is the moment to recall President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo nearly two years ago where he called for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
This is a defining moment for a man who may well be the right president at the right time of history. While his speech was not in itself enough to transform relations, the killing of Bin Laden presents an opportunity to close the sorry chapter of the past decade.
As Arabs open their own new chapter in their transformative struggle for justice, equality and freedom, it is time for the United States to truly join that struggle. A transformed Arab world is the best response to bin Laden’s life and his legacy.