The recent popular uprising and military coup in Egypt have caused the historic and involuntary departure of the country's 30-year dictator, Hosni Mubarak. His removal from power, and the earlier departure of Tunisia's dictator, Ben Ali, marks the beginning of a new, uncertain period throughout the region. Arab people are purportedly demonstrating for freedom and democracy. If they are not careful, tyranny and Islamic religious repression will be what they get, with war the inevitable outcome. President Obama must, therefore, urgently devise new strategies to effectively mitigate dangers to peace and security emanating from these uprisings.
Iran's non-Arab religious dictator, Ayatollah Khamenei, describes recent events as an "Islamic Awakening." He would like nothing better than to expand the Shiite Islamic Revolution to more Arab countries, which, despite their many leadership shortcomings, have served as a bulwark against the Iranian Islamic model and that country's caliph aspirations. Others, like some members of the Islamist transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement, advocate canceling peace treaties Egypt and Jordan have with Israel, creating Islamic Arab states, and installing Sharia law. Sharia, among other things, totally subordinates women and mandates many other human rights violations.
The Arab world contains about 350 million residents (the vast majority are Sunni Muslims). It currently consists of 21 nations plus the West Bank and Gaza areas, spread mostly throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and includes oil rich Arab Gulf areas and the Suez Canal. Egypt is its most powerful and populated country with a 450,000 man active duty military and 80 million residents. The Arab League, founded and headquartered in Cairo, is a voluntary association of those governments, intended to strengthen, coordinate and promote member ties, policies, and interests.
However, in 65 years of existence, the Arab League has consistently failed to satisfactorily address festering "Arab Street" problems. Most Arabs suffer from oppression, poverty, illiteracy, genocide, and locally bred terrorism. And the persons most responsible for perpetuating these conditions are an assortment of authoritarian rulers, terror groups, and Islamic extremists. Some of the prime factors prompting Arabs to demonstrate against their governments follow:
Freedom House reported in 2010 that none of the Arab leaders provide their citizens with the full panoply of political rights and civil liberties to qualify as truly free states. And none of the members provide the necessary legal environment, political influences, and economic conditions to guarantee that news provided by national media outlets has been fully accessed, objectively reported, and accurately disseminated to qualify as having a truly free press.
The average annual income of Arab world residents is $8,000, which is about 30 percent less than the global average, and despite enormous wealth in some Arab countries like Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, where the per capita income is $40,400; $51,700; and $145,300 respectively. Conversely, people in places like Comoros, Somalia and Sudan have average incomes ranging between $2 and $6 per day.
About 32 percent of Arab world residents, age 15 and above, cannot read or write. It's more than double the illiteracy rate for similarly aged residents of non-Arab countries. In Somalia, Yemen, and Morocco, illiteracy rates are 62 percent, 50 percent, and 48 percent respectively. Females have a much greater illiteracy rate than males.
African Muslim racial genocide has raged in the Sudan's Darfur region for years with up to 400,000 killed and 2.5 million displaced. The International Criminal Court indicted Sudan's Arab President, Omar al-Bashir, for these atrocities. The Arab League's response was to decisively reject the indictment, apparently more interested in protecting its brethren rather than innocent human life.
Nineteen of the world's 44 foreign terrorist organizations, designated by the U.S. State Department, have gestated and operate in the Arab world. While the primary aim of most of them is to destroy the only Middle East democracy, Israel, and greatly diminish U.S. regional and global influence, the vast majority of their victims have been innocent Muslims. Radical Islamists use a dangerous mix of politics and religion to target for recruitment the abused, misinformed, impoverished, under-educated, and others to become participants in various jihad movements. Two terror groups with strong ties to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, have effectively taken over the Lebanon and Gaza Strip governments.
The euphoria of change is spreading across the Arab world, and many wonder which domino is next to fall. However, these regime changes must be tempered with the understanding that they may not translate into the desired liberal democracy many demonstrators, and their Western supporters, seek. Alarmingly, these revolts are opening a Pandora's Box of chaos best suited for those most viscerally opposed to secular society under the rule of man-made law. Even as jubilant youthful crowds dance in Egypt's Tahrir Square, the Iranian regime and Muslim Brotherhood are conspiring to fill leadership vacuums and achieve their longstanding goals.
To give Arabs a better chance at experiencing true freedom, President Obama should (1) encourage genuine freedom-seeking Arabs to facilitate much needed changes to political, economic, judicial and educational institutions before holding elections, otherwise a rush to democracy could spell its destruction in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere; (2) declare that America stands for the rights of people everywhere to freely govern themselves and to hold their governments accountable for their acts; and (3) significantly alter his failed policy of extending an "open hand" to dictators, tyrants and terrorists under the auspices of pursuing dubious U.S. foreign policy objectives and an elusive peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Above all, President Obama should publicly proclaim that America's and the Free World's interests are best served by defending Free states, promoting freedom, and supporting legitimate freedom movements in the Arab world or wherever else they sprout. Where freedom flourishes, war abates and people prosper. It's mankind's best hope.
Fred Gedrich is a foreign affairs and national security analyst. He served in the U.S. Departments of Defense and State and has traveled extensively in the Arab world.