Young Arabs have crossed the Rubicon

Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Jan 30, 2011      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Young Arabs have crossed the Rubicon

By Hasan Zillur Rahim

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

Those were the stirring words of President Obama when he gave his Cairo speech in June of 2009. But eloquence and oratory cannot mask reality. As Egyptians rise is revolt against the kleptocracy of Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration is desperately trying to adjust its sails against the unexpected wind of change sweeping Egypt. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially praised Egypt’s “stability” under Mubarak but now that the Arabs have crossed Rubicon, she is using words like “restraint” and “reform” and urging “transition to a democratic regime.”

Why does the United States finds itself so often on the wrong side of history, at least initially? Why does it so easily settle for a Faustian bargain with autocrats like Mubarak who has kept his country in a state of emergency for three decades? For the Muslim world, in particular, America’s policy has been driven by an irrational combination of oil, Israel and Islamic terror. Mubarak used the bogeyman of “Islamic Jihadists” (Muslim brotherhood in his case) to convince America that keeping him in power was the only option, and so our government obliged him with $1.3b in military aid every year. Not just the tanks and the fighter planes, even the tear gas and the rubber bullets being used against Egyptians bear the label “Made in America.” Only the water in the water cannons presumably comes from the Nile. Is it any wonder that ordinary Egyptians do not quite look upon America as a beacon of freedom and democracy?

In his second State of the Union address on January 25, President Obama equated Tunisian revolution with freedom. “We saw,” he said, “that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful that the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

What a golden opportunity the President missed by not including Egypt in his address! Extolling the virtues of democracy, the President said, “… as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometime be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on earth. We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from.”

As Mustafa, an Egyptian friend of mine put it: “Does this mean that the United States reserves the right to experiment with democracy to enjoy its fruits, while Muslim puppets deny democracy to their people to cater to misguided American interests? This is nothing but arrogance and hypocrisy.”

American-Muslims, meanwhile, have thrown their full support behind Egyptians fighting unarmed for their freedom. During the Friday Khutbah in the largest mosque in California’s Silicon Valley, for instance, the Imam urged us to pray for their success in throwing out the pharaoh and preventing dynastic decadence. In solidarity with the Egyptian anger revolution, American Muslims have already demonstrated in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. More protest marches are planned.

During the Tunisian revolution, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his sycophants cut off Internet access, particularly access to Facebook. As Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic explained, the Facebook security team in Silicon Valley discovered that Ammar, the nickname Tunisians have given to the authorities that censor the Internet, was trying to steal an entire country’s worth of passwords. With the stolen passwords, Ammar was deleting Tunisians’ Facebook accounts!

After more than ten days of intensive investigation, Facebook’s security team realized that Tunisia’s Internet service providers (ISP) were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users’ login information when they went to sites like Facebook.

The security team coded a two-step response. First, all Tunisian requests for Facebook were routed to an https server. The https protocol encrypts the information sent across it (the “s” in “https” stands for “secure” or “secure sockets layer” (SSL), so it is not vulnerable to the keylogging strategy used by the Tunisian ISPs. The second technical solution was a “roadblock” for anyone who had logged out and then back in during the time when the Tunisian malicious code was running.

Facebook rolled out the new solutions to all of Tunisia five days after the company discovered what was happening, and access to the site was restored.

Hosni Mubarak also followed the path of his now-deposed fellow-dictator: He ordered the state-controlled ISPs to completely cut off Egypt’s Internet access. But Egyptians were not deterred. The air was charged with electricity and possibilities. The revolution had taken on a momentum of its own, and while Facebook and Twitter initially helped, Egyptians had already transcended the Internet.

Still, it is reasonable to hope that companies like Facebook will give special consideration to activists trying to overthrow repressive regimes. If the company wants to remain central to people’s political aspirations, it has to come up with a powerful, long-term solution that can be activated at a moment’s notice when access to the site is denied by any country. From a hardware point of view, if dictators block Internet data pipes into their countries, perhaps multiple satellite connections as backups can be in place so that communication can continue uninterrupted despite latency issues.

However the technology evolves, make no mistake: the days of dictators who equate dissent with treason and oppress and torture their people are coming to an end. Muslim nations are beset by modern-day pharaohs. For the creativity of millions of Muslims to flower in freedom, the pharaohs will be overthrown, if not today, then certainly tomorrow. That is the lesson of Tunisia and Egypt.