Why can't Arab states be more like little brother?

October 31, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

MANAMA, Bahrain -- Think about the contrasting headlines made last week by the biggest Arab state and the smallest Arab state.

From the biggest state, Egypt, came the news that its state TV planned to run a 41-part series during the month of Ramadan -- when TV viewing is at its highest -- about a Zionist conspiracy to control Arab lands. From the smallest state, Bahrain, came the news that it had successfully conducted the first democratic parliamentary election in the Arab gulf, to begin empowering Bahrainis to control their own land.

Therein lies the two Arab responses to 9/11. One, the Egyptian model, is to feed their people bread, circuses and conspiracy theories to explain why they are falling behind in the world. The other, the Bahraini model, is to feed their people more responsibility, a freer press and greater ability to shape their own future to help them catch up in the world.

Americans have a real stake in Bahrain's democratic experiment working and influencing others. Why? Look, no one should doubt that the rage boiling among Arab youths today is due in part to anger at U.S. support for anything Israel does.

But the rage is also the result of the way too many Arab regimes, backed by America, have kept their young people without a voice or the tools to succeed in the modern world. Too many young Arabs feel humiliated when they compare themselves with others, and it is their poverty of dignity that also prompts them to lash out.

I just took part in a debate about democracy in the Arab world on Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV. As a result, I was stopped all week by people who wanted to tell me what they thought about this subject.

Here's a sample: (1) Arab man in my hotel lobby: "I am from Kuwait. I just want to tell you, without democracy, we're lost." (2) Saudi contractor at Bahrain Airport: "Do you think this Bahrain thing could spread to Saudi Arabia?" (3) A young Bahraini banker: "Instead of promoting creative thinking, our public schools here still teach the three R's -- read, remember and regurgitate." (4) Finally, two Bahraini men stopped me on the beach to say how proud they were that tiny Bahrain's election made CNN's world news roundup! I had to smile.

The last time Bahrain made CNN was in April, when a Bahraini youth was killed trying to storm the U.S. Embassy.

And that's the point. How are young Arabs going to find dignity? By holding elections or by holding hostages, by storming embassies or by storming voting booths, by giving them a voice and skills to succeed or by paying them off with oil money but keeping them powerless? These questions are key, and if you give people the freedom to talk about them, they will. I discovered that at Al Wasat -- the first independent newspaper allowed in Bahrain -- when I asked its gutsy young editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, about the roots of 9/11.

"There are domestic roots for what happened," he said, "and the root is that if you squash freedom, if you stop freedom of expression, insult this person and just give him money, he transfers all this money into revenge, because of having lost his dignity. We have six people from Bahrain in Guantanamo Bay. One is a member of the ruling family. The other five are ... from the upper class. ...

"There is a vacuum. You empty a person, you fill him with money, you fill him with material things, but that does not fulfill his aspirations as a human being. He has some objectives. He has feelings. He is not fulfilled.

"And all of a sudden someone comes and tells him that the cause of all that is this global power [America]. ... And all of a sudden he directs his anger at what he thinks is the reason why he doesn't have what he wants -- his sense of being a true human able to express himself and having influence on his society and being respected locally and internationally."

Little Bahrain is trying to heal that poverty of dignity by introducing a little democracy. If only it would happen to big brothers Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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