Every time I see a large crowd of people on TV or in a newspaper, demonstrating against some autocratic government, I have mixed feelings: admiration for their willingness and bravery to take a stand, and a foreboding that nothing will come out of the effort. This sad conclusion comes from seeing too many worthy causes and mass movements fizzle out over the years. But even by that grim reality the defeat of democracy movements across the Middle East and North Africa, following protests that brought out millions of people, is staggering. Not that these were the only places where crowds were demanding change. There were mass demonstrations in Greece, Bulgaria, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Spain, Portugal, and many other countries, caused by the global economic crisis and governments instituting austerity measures, but what has happened in places like Syria and Egypt and now Ukraine is more serious, since protesters have questioned the legitimacy of the state and made demands for fundamental reform or the overthrow of the men and institutions who stand in the way of popular will.
Although most of us know little about the history and culture of these countries, we have seen the faces of protesters, old and young, and from all walks of life; and although they may look different than our own compatriots, we can understand their anger and disgust with the political system they have been living under and their determination and vulnerability as they confront armed representatives of a corrupt state. How exhilarating it was in 2011 to see hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the streets and scaring the hell out of those in power. It made me recall the heady days of protests against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the naïve conviction we had as participants that our voices would be heard and would prevail against what seemed to us then, and proved subsequently to be, acts of moral and strategic idiocy, leading to slaughter of countless of human beings and destruction of their countries.
Nonetheless, for weeks, and even months, watching the crowds at Tahrir Square and elsewhere we were hopeful. Their demands appeared not only reasonable, but irreversible, even though there were plenty of signs that those in power intended to strike back. I remember, for example, seeing on TV a clip of a demonstration in Bahrain, or in some other Gulf State, where the following scene took place. A distinguished-looking elderly man in a white suit stepped out of the crowd of demonstrators and approached a platoon of armed soldiers with their rifles pointed. He was speaking to them calmly when, without any warning, one of the soldiers lifted his weapon and shot the man in the head. There was plenty more violence everywhere during the months of the so-called Arab Spring, but what particularly caught my eye was the brutality the policeman and soldiers reserved for women and students in the crowd. It would be replayed a few months later in the scenes of cops beating and spraying with mace young women during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in our cities. One could feel the pleasure that inflicting pain gave these men and the hatred they bore for these disobedient children of their fellow citizens, as they worked up a sweat kicking and pummeling them.
That’s why I’m wary of the politicians and op-ed page writers who routinely express shock and outrage at the brutal treatment of demonstrators in other parts of the world. They never seem to notice how we treat them at home or how our soldiers deal with them in the countries we’ve been occupying lately. The farther away the injustice is, one might say, the louder their voices are, though even there they tend to be selective and preach humanitarian aid only when it suits our interests. If the regime doing the beating is one of our allies, not a peep will be heard from anyone in Washington. If not, than their usual advice for putting a stop to the mistreatment of protesters is military intervention. To hear someone like Senator John McCain tell it, all we need to do in these countries is drop a lot of bombs and freedom and democracy will emerge from the wreckage, as they did, I presume, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. He and other enthusiasts of military interventions have no patience with anyone who argues that it’s not up to us to remedy every injustice in the world, or who points out that, when we involve ourselves, we end up killing a lot of innocent people and unleashing ethnic and religious passions, resulting in local and regional chaos we have no way of containing.
It is the selective morality of our interventionists that offends me. They judge acts of violence not by their consequences, but on whether someone else or we are the perpetrators—if the acts are done by us they tend to have their full approval. Hypocrites who are blind or indifferent to their own country’s atrocities are not well suited for playing the part of moral conscience of the world, especially when their claims to desire democracy in these troubled countries has a long and notoriously checkered history. As we have witnessed again and again, since we overthrew the elected government in Iran sixty years ago, the United States prefers to deal with countries run by autocrats and the military, because democracies that genuinely respond to the wishes of voters tend to be unpredictable and independent, and therefore are not in sync with our strategic and business interests.
What a sigh of relief for Washington when the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected government! Overnight, the crowds that gathered at Tahrir Square were forgotten and the politicians and columnists who idealized them the day before fell silent, even as the army and the security forces started shooting them in the streets and locking them up by the thousands. As the saying goes, we have seen this movie many times before. There are few things that never change in this world of ours, but one of them happens to be the near certainty that those who raise their voices against injustice get betrayed in the end.