Thomas L. Friedman: The Middle East is becoming us as we are becoming them

(Khalid Mohammed | AP) Anti-government protesters gather on barriers set up by security forces to close Rasheed Street during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. At least 400 people have died since the leaderless uprising shook Iraq on Oct. 1, with thousands of Iraqis taking to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern Iraq decrying corruption, poor services, lack of jobs and calling for an end to the political system that was imposed after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Having covered the Middle East my entire adult life, I’m seeing some trends emerging there that I’ve never seen before.

One is from the streets of Beirut to the streets of Baghdad to streets all across Iran, Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens with rights, and not just members of a sect or tribe with passions to be manipulated. And they’re clamoring for noncorrupt institutions — a deep state — and the rule of law, not just the arbitrary rule of militias, thugs or autocrats.

And right when Middle Easterners are demanding to be treated as citizens — not Sunnis or Shiites — Americans are devolving into Sunnis and Shiites or, as we call them, Democrats and Republicans, with the same tribal mentality: rule or die.

And worse, the GOP has elevated the exact same kind of autocrat that Middle Easterners are trying to get rid of. Our sultan is just like one of theirs: He shirks the rule of law, nurtures a cult of personality through his own state-directed media, surrounds himself with sycophants, con men and conspiracy buffs, and denounces our professional deep state — its bureaucrats, diplomats and military officers — for trying to shackle him with our 230-year-old constitutional checks and balances.

Go figure. We’re becoming them right when they want to become us — or what used to be us.

The other trend I’m seeing is the striking contrast between what Middle East politics has long been about in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and what average people in these countries are now seeking.

For years, Sunni and Shiite party bosses and militia leaders at the top have manipulated sectarian and tribal identities below to cement themselves in power and make themselves the brokers for who get jobs and contracts. But there’s been a stunning shift in the whole flow of politics in some of these countries. It’s gone from Sunnis versus Shiites across the board to Sunnis and Shiites at the bottom locking arms together against all their leaders at the top.

You read some amazing stuff coming up from the bottom these days. Here’s Christine McCaffray van den Toorn, writing on Al-Monitor.com on Nov. 22, describing the scene in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations there for a nonsectarian, civil state in Iraq:

“Protesters are seizing their country, which was wrenched from them by a corrupt government. In doing so they reaffirm their Iraqiness in the most positive ways. They have even set up reverse checkpoints that welcome citizens but exclude the armed forces. Communities intermingle; different sectors of society stand side by side. Patriotism is on full display. Iraqi flags are everywhere. Women are highly visible. There is a clear rejection of sectarianism, as ‘Iraqi’ identity is emphasized. Everyone helps each other by whatever means — money, chaperones, medical care, internet. There is even a laundry service.”

Elsewhere, she adds, Iraqi resourcefulness is emerging from the bottom: “Startups, including Iraq’s version of Amazon, a grocery-delivery service, coworking spaces and culture cafes, have grown by being outside the purview of the government. There is no shortage of talent or determination to create opportunities in areas where the government has failed. Independent civil society groups, youth and women’s organizations have made major headway.”

And here’s a young Lebanese lawyer friend describing to me what’s been happening in Beirut:

“This is Lebanon’s ‘We the People’ moment. The demonstrations are massive, across all regions, across all sects, and against all political parties (no exceptions). They are also overwhelmingly spontaneous, and the protesters are opposed to the entirety of Lebanon’s sectarian political establishment, which gives the protests credibility in the eyes of the population. Only Lebanese flags are raised at the demonstrations — no partisan flags or sectarian symbols. The slogan ‘The people want a civil state’ is one of the top slogans of the protests.”

These movements are authentic and inspiring, but their chances of taking power remain remote, largely because their biggest opponent — the Islamic Republic of Iran — is ready to arrest and kill as many democracy demonstrators as needed to retain its grip on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, not to mention at home. Iran’s clerical regime has emerged as arguably the biggest enemy of pluralistic democracy in the region today. There are plenty of Arab dictators keeping their own people down, but Iran is doing it at home and in three other countries at once.

Iran has used its Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and Syria and its Popular Mobilization Forces militia in Iraq to try to snuff out all their bottom-up secular democratic movements — while also crushing the biggest secular-democracy uprising in Iran itself in 40 years.

The Iranian ayatollahs even had to largely shut down their own internet to prevent the domestic rebellion from spreading. Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002, Iran has never wanted to see a stable, multisectarian, secular democracy emerge in Baghdad, because then Iranian Shiites would be asking why Iraqi Shiites get to live freely and they don’t.

If President Donald Trump really wanted to use Twitter for impact, he’d be tweeting every morning at the supreme leader of Iran: “Hey, Supreme Leader of Iran, which nonsectarian Arab-Muslim democracy movement did you crush today? It’s Monday, so it must be Lebanon. It’s Tuesday, so Syria. It’s Wednesday, Iraq. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it must be your own people.”

There is no good time for a country like Iran to be suppressing popular movements for pluralistic democracy, but this is a uniquely bad time. We are in an age of acceleration. Technology, globalization and climate change are all accelerating at the same time. The Middle East has got to get its act together if it has any hope of thriving in the 21st century.

For example, Lebanon’s protests were sparked when the government proposed taxing WhatsApp and other internet calling services to pay down huge government debts incurred by corrupt politicians. But they were also fueled by the government’s inability to deal with massive forest fires spread by high temperatures and prolonged drought. Meanwhile, in places like Libya, Yemen and Syria, kids have missed years of basic schooling. All of this is happening while populations have exploded.

The Arab world and Iran cannot afford to waste another drop of their water, when every climate study shows temperatures rapidly rising in the region; they cannot afford to misspend another dollar of their diminishing oil revenues on guns, civil wars, yachts or corruption, when they need to rebuild so much of their self-destroyed infrastructure that no superpower is going to rebuild for them; they cannot afford to miss another day of school, when lifelong learning is more important than ever to secure and hold a decent job.

If these countries are not able to find a way to break the hold of sectarian misgovernance and find their way to political pluralism, religious pluralism, gender pluralism and education pluralism, their people stand no chance in the 21st century, especially once Mother Nature starts to really hammer them. The entire region could become one giant human development disaster area, with everyone trying to get to Europe.

America, for its part, has to keep looking for ways to collaborate with them on that pluralism project, to the extent that they want our help, with creative diplomacy, and not just wash our hands of the region.

But the bad guys at the top won’t go easily, quietly or bloodlessly. And since no outside power will be riding to the rescue, it will take sustained, organized, bottom-up mass movements — in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran in particular — to enable the future to bury the past and topple all those at the top who want to use the past to bury the future.

I am so rooting for their success.

Thomas L. Friedman

Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.