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Thomas Friedman: Imperial Messenger of the Arab Spring

(Photo: AFP-Mark Ralston)

The following is an article I wrote for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar English.

It took Thomas Friedman — New York Times foreign affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for reporting and commentary on the Middle East — approximately 46 days after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia to weigh in on the matter.

Noted champion of the notion that Iraqis should be made to “Suck. On. This” by the US military in order to “try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East”, Friedman eventually turns up in a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss ramifications of the Egyptian uprising with a retired Israeli general. He then proceeds to Egypt itself, an experience that subsequently merits significant reflection:

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: ‘Do you have a corporate rate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.’ There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Sure. ‘Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.’

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.

Friedman’s recounting of his telephone experience sets the stage for additional assessments of the regional revolts, such as: “When we say ‘democratic reform’ to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, we might as well be speaking Latin.”

The sudden inability of the Bahraini monarchy to comprehend democratic reform is especially curious given Friedman’s own previous praise of the same monarchy for its “innovative experiments with democracy,” thanks to its “progressive king,” and “innovative Crown Prince.”

The innovative prince appears in Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded eating pizza at a Bahraini bistro with Friedman, while the daughter of a woman in a head-scarf at the table next to them is “dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder.” The bearer of the possible tattoo presumably belongs to the same category as the modern-sounding Egyptian hotel receptionist and other desirable types of Orientals, like “emphatically pro-Western Saudis, who have studied in America, visit regularly, and still root for their favorite American football teams.”

The relative familiarity of these ‘Orientals’ to the Western observer earns them Friedman brownie points vis-à-vis other contenders in the struggle for the soul of Arab/Muslim civilization, such as Palestinians “gripped by a collective madness” and Iraqis opposed to the US “occupation” of their country, who are written off as members of the “Iraqi Khmer Rouge.” Though Friedman eventually starts referring to the US occupation without quotation marks, he never explains why it is that the destruction of Iraq “to try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East” is necessary when he has already advertised Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco as “progressive Arab states” and decreed that “whatever happens with the Iraq experiment — but especially if it fails — we need Dubai to succeed. Dubai is where we should want the Arab world to go.”

Click here to read the rest of the article at Al Akhbar.

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