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How the Arab Spring changed the language of democracy

Nabila Ramdani

Published: Updated:

Two years on from the start of the Arab Spring and Israel’s language of democracy in the Middle East is as familiar as ever.

Calling Barack Obama in the White House this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his ‘deep appreciation to the President and the American people for the United States’ investment in the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defence system, which has effectively defeated hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza and saved countless Israeli lives.’

Netanyahu’s disingenuous narrative was clear: Israel, a country committed to peace, justice and freedom was once more resisting the extremism and hate which surrounds it. Both Netanyahu and Obama made passing, respectful references to those who had died in Gaza, and – as they always do – said they were obligated to halt the violence.

A predictable dialogue between traditional allies determined to fight resistance to oppression with even more violence is seldom a cause for optimism, but other messages coming out of the Middle East and North Africa might be. One of the defining rallying cries of the Arab Spring was a commitment to Palestinian rights. Protestors across the region who demanded an end to exploitation, dismal living conditions and autocratic rule in their own countries wanted the same for Gaza.

Despots like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had always managed to supress manifestations of Palestinian solidarity, in return for the riches and security which came with being a close friend of the United States, but the situation has at least changed in part. Many of the millions of people who took to the streets to fight against such tyrannical cynicism last year, are now openly united in their support for Palestine. Demonstrations are taking place from Tripoli to Tunis, with huge crowds in Jordan demanding the fall of their own regime, as well as justice for Palestinians.

This sense of sympathy has extended to fledgling democratic governments. Newly elected Arab politicians are actively endorsing Palestinian leaders who were for so long ignored, or stigmatised as dangerous radicals. New high profile friends of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip include the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey – all of which are as much allies of the United States as Israel is. The massively wealthy Emir of Qatar has also visited the Gaza Strip and pledged to pour millions into the community there. All of these countries provide greater legitimacy for Hamas against its portrayal by the Israelis as an uncompromising terrorist organisation. And do not forget Hamas was democratically elected too.

On Friday Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s new president, defied American criticism to send his new Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to Gaza. This was the kind of hugely significant gesture which Hosni Mubarak would never have dared to make. On the contrary, Mubarak will always be remembered for keeping the Rafah Crossing closed in 2008 – an act which outraged Egyptian public opinion. Back then the three-week Israeli invasion into the Gaza Strip had led to the deaths of some 1,400 Palestinians, including 333 children. The fighting had also claimed the lives of 11 Israeli soldiers and three civilians. Now, though, Mursi’s government has opened the Rafah Crossing to allow wounded Gazans to be treated in Egyptian hospitals. Mursi himself has warned Israel against further aggression, saying it would pay a ‘high price’ if it continues to murder and maim with impunity.

President Mursi summed up the post-Arab Spring shift in attitudes at a visit to a mosque on Friday with the words: ‘I speak on behalf of all of the Egyptian people in saying that Egypt today is different from Egypt yesterday, and the Arabs of today are different from the Arabs of yesterday.’ In stark contrast to Mubarak, Mursi is genuinely trying to find a diplomatic solution. He is, for example, holding an Arab League session in Cairo today aimed at a ceasefire, and has also called for a United Nations emergency meeting.

Such important acts will make it hard for Israel to revert to the old-fashioned narrative of a sane, responsible democracy standing up for decency against the radical, violent hordes which encircle it. Just as Arabs alerted the world to the continuing oppression of their U.S.-backed dictators, in many cases toppling them, so they are in a position to do something about the scandal of Palestine.


(Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning Paris-born freelance journalist of Algerian descent who specialises in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab World. @NabilaRamdani)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.