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Arab uprising a challenge to West’s thinking

SO what has happened so far? A corrupt president in Tunisia flees, to cheers around the world. Protests erupt in Egypt, and gloom descends. Protests are held in Iran, and the world cheers. A prime minister is deposed in Lebanon, to fear and dread. An Iraqi president is overthrown in a military offensive, and it's called democracy. Demonstrations take place in Yemen; they're "interesting" but not important.

Why the different reactions? This is supposedly the new Middle East the West always wanted, but something still isn't working out. This isn't the Middle East they dreamed of in the Bush administration, and not what nourished Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's wildest dreams. A new, unexpected player has appeared: the public.

Up to now, the world has been divided into two camps: "complicated" countries where the government represents the public and every decision is subject to public oversight, and "easy" countries where business is conducted at the top and the public is just window dressing. The dividing line between the two has always been starkly clear. Everything north of the Mediterranean belonged to the first group and everything to the south and east to the second.

The north had political parties and trade unions, a Left wing and a Right wing, intellectuals, celebrities who shaped public opinion and, of course, there was public opinion itself. In the south, the division was simple. It was the distinction between moderates and extremists, meaning pro-Westerners and anti-Westerners.

If you're a Saudi king who buys billions of dollars worth of US weapons, you're pro-Western and therefore entitled to continue to rule a country without a parliament, one where thieves' hands are amputated and women aren't allowed to drive. If you're an Egyptian president who supports peace, you're pro-Western and have permission to continue to impose emergency rule in your country, jail journalists and opposition members, and fix elections.

And what if you're the ruler of Qatar? On the one hand, Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East. But it has close ties with Iran and Syria. Its ruler promotes democracy and its Foreign Minister meets Israeli officials. But it nurtures Al Jazeera. Of course, we love Al Jazeera when it shows exclusive pictures of mass demonstrations, discloses secret documents, and is open to interviewing Israeli and Jewish spokespeople. But we hate it because it covers Hamas and Hezbollah's successes. The challenge of categorising Qatar shows the terms pro-Western and moderate have no connection to the values the West seeks to export. They only represent the fear and the threat posed by the values the anti-Westerners send to the West.

And all of a sudden, the Arab "street" erupts, a sophisticated street. It uses "our" methods, Facebook and Twitter to present us with a situation of disorder. What if it manages to establish democracy in Egypt? In Yemen?

And when Al Jazeera's cameras come close to the demonstrators, it also becomes clear that these are not religious radicals. They're not shouting "God is great", but "corruption out," "dictator out" and "we want jobs". It makes us want to join them until we remember US president Franklin Roosevelt's description of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: he "may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch". It's disrupting the order of things.

We don't have to wait for other regimes to fall to understand that the revolution is happening before our very eyes. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will not fall due to demonstrations and Yemen's ruler will also continue to rule by force. But it's a revolution of awareness and of the fundamental notions of what the Middle East is. Most importantly, we need a revolution in the way the West views the region.


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