In Translation: Trump and the Arabs
There has been a wide range of reactions to the election of Donald Trump as US president in the Arab world, ranging from horror to accommodation to cheers. Much of the Egyptian media – indeed, the Egyptian regime – sees in Trump hope that of a leader who will develop closer ties to Abdefattah al-SIsi, ending the funk in Egypt-US relations and declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the Gulf, commentators close to the Saudi regime show cautious pragmatism, cheered by the anti-Iranian stance (even if they might not be so happy about the Iran nuclear deal being scrapped, since at least it contained Tehran’s nuclear ambition). Many right-wing Israelis are overjoyed by the prospect of a US president who not only promises to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but is overly anti-Palestinian and whose chief advisor hails from an “alt-right” movement many of whose members are pro-Israel and whose ideologues describe as “White Zionism”. And of course, many, many others fear (another?) war-mongering US president with openly Islamophobic views and, more generally, yet another element of uncertainty at a moment of regional turmoil.
But there is an argument to be made that, while Trump’s impact on the US may very well be dire, it will not mark such a significant shift for the region. First, Trump’s foreign policy ideas are basically non-existent. He will draw in advisors with radical and biased views, to be sure, but this happened before under George W. Bush and other administrations haven’t exactly been impartial mediators on many issues (see Israel-Palestine). Trump backing Assad or staying away from conflicts such as Yemen and Libya or seeking to extract a kind of tribute from the oil producing state of the Gulf can be seen as a more forthright departure from existing policy, not a radical departure. Indeed the thing to fear the most is geopolitical uncertainty, amateurism and military adventurism. But again, nothing entirely new. Only the idea of the “Muslim ban” offers something that pretty much draws universal condemnation in the region. The likes of veteran commentators AbdelBari Atwan, whose post-election commentary is reproduced below, are making these points. They likely underestimate the new and innovative forms of damage a Trump presidency could wreck.
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Trump stunned many with his surprise victory… how did he achieve this ‘miracle’? What will his policies be towards in the Arab world? How will his friendship with Putin impact Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Gulf and Iran?
AbdelBari Atwan, Rai al-Youm, 9 November 2016
Defeating the American political establishment as embodied by its representative, Hillary Clinton, and defeating the mighty media empires, Donald Trump has won. He has also demonstrated that opinion polling lacks credibility and is fatally flawed, and proven wrong countless political analysts, experts and think tanks who predicted that he would be quickly and decisively defeated.
The leaders of the Republican Party and its elite in Congress and the House of Representatives washed their hands of him, describing him as ignorant and lacking political experience, but he faced them down, parrying their blows with blows of his own. Demonstrating a deep reading of popular sentiment and engineering a message that effectively reached out to the electorate, he proved that he better understands the American people and its demands than the party.
Americans, as this election has demonstrated, are tired of their schizophrenic governing elite, which fails to understand their concerns, problems and ambitions. This is why they put their trust in this “rebel” against the political establishment and gave him their votes.
We in no way disagree with the many who condemn this man, or with the numerous criticisms of his personality and behavior, but at the end of the day, judgment resides in the hands of the people and at the ballot boxes. It is hard to imagine how a millionaire who travels by private plane and luxury yacht could present himself as the representative and defender of the rights and demands of the poor and marginalized. However, the frustrated of America believed him and entrusted him with their votes, perhaps because he is candid and spontaneous, unlike the ruling establishment’s professionals and politicians.
Facing vicious and personal attacks in the media about his character, family life and financial honesty, he kept the course through the media’s minefields to defeat his 16 rivals for the Republican party nomination before prevailing over the greater challenger, Clinton, to arrive in the White House wearing his bright red tie.
He is racist, right-wing, and belittles and harasses women. He despises Islam and Muslims and wants to shut them out along with the poor of Mexico and Latin America. But why is this surprising? Are we not talking about America, the country that assails us with tanks, missiles and agents, that kills millions of us, that plants the seeds of sectarian war, changes regimes and spreads murderous chaos? And is Mrs. Clinton really full of love for Muslims? Did she not threaten to intervene militarily in Syria, enthusiastically back the invasion and occupation of Iraq, urge the murder of an Arab leader (Qadhafi) and fail to show any basic human respect towards him once he died?
There may have been differences between candidates in the presidential elections when it comes to many matters of domestic and foreign policy, but they were united in their contempt for Arabs and therefore Islam. The only difference was the manner in which they expressed it.
Today, when Trump went to the heart of the White House, it dawned on us that we would have to work with this loathsome person as president. More than other presidents who provoked the ruling establishment, it is clear that he will have to change his behavior and stances or else face the risk of assassination. His threat to repeal or amend many of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear agreement may indeed be shelved since the agreement concerns the five major powers plus Germany, not just Iran and America, and since cancelling the deal would result in Iran resuming its enrichment of uranium and acquiring nuclear weapons, possibly leading to war to prevent that from happening.
We disagree with the many who bought into the stereotype sold by the powerful media and political establishment, which described him as an unpredictable madman unqualified to lead any state. If that were the case, he would not have received a majority[^1] of the votes of approximately 300 million US citizens in free and fair elections.
Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladmir Putin is not a shortcoming or a mistake. We think differently and believe the cup is half-full. This obvious admiration for Putin may lead to more cooperation between the two major powers on pressing issues, particularly the wars of the Middle East. Is it necessary for the presidents of two major powers with a tense relationship and ongoing cold and hot wars to themselves be antagonistic towards one another? Have we forgotten that war between them is conducted on our land and that the victims are our people and children?
Trump threatens to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. We have started to clamor about this disastrous idea — and it would really be a disaster — but what can we do? Do we have the power to prevent it, given the painful condition of the Islamic world at present? Did we prevent the occupation of Jerusalem or its Judaization? Is there anyone championing the members of the resistance in the occupied territories who are losing their lives, so as to protect Palestine’s Arab and Islamic identity?
Another point that many people are stuck on is Trump’s threat to ban Muslims from entering America. This behavior is racist, detestable and fascist. However, we should ask, have Arab countries, and especially Gulf countries, opened their borders to Syrian refugees or Iraqi refugees before them? They are the countries that bear the greatest responsibility, having spent billions of dollars trying to topple the Syrian government and supported the invasion, embargo and regime change in Iraq.
Why should our response not be to prevent Americans from entering the 50 Islamic countries around the world? Why should Muslims go to America at all? There are many other alternatives, and we don’t think that Muslims will die of grief if they can’t go to America as visitors and immigrants. They should turn their attention to corrupt Arab leaders who waste their resources, steal the fruits of their labor and place the proceeds in American banks, and instead work towards good governance, social justice and political and economic reform.
We do not support President Trump, nor do we support any American president, because we absolutely believe that most of our troubles have been caused by America and the Arab leaders allied to it. However, we wanted to provide a different analysis of the political earthquake caused by this American election, and how to deal with it. We also wanted to say that we, as Arabs and Muslims, who have only rarely experienced this thing called an election, must rely first and foremost on ourselves.
America is changing. Trump in the White House represents the beginning of this change. It is only logical to conclude that we too must change, learn from our disastrous mistakes, and stop being subordinate to our American backers who want to impose the jizya[^2] on us and plunder the remainder of our resources.
[^1]: Atwan writes before the final tally showing that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.
[^2]: A tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects in Muslim states; in this case Atwan uses it to in the more general sense of tribute.