One of the most iconic moments of 2003 took place on April 3 in Paradise (al-Firdaws) Square in downtown Baghdad, when hundreds of Baghdadis brought down a large metal statue of the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed both the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator, and a resounding military victory for the American liberators, who in less than a month had crossed the Iraqi border and carried out the promised regime change. At the time media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.
Here we stand nearly 8 years later, and all the joyous emotions of that day have long dissipated, erased by an ugly and interminable American occupation of Iraq, years of sectarian squabbling amongst Iraq's new generation of politicians, and a broken country with no infrastructure to speak of.
On February 11, 2010 the entire world was witness to another iconic moment, this time from Liberation (Tahrir) Square in downtown Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of Cairenes had peacefully, and without foreign intervention, toppled the Egyptian tyrant Husni Mubarak. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator. Media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.
There is very good reason to believe that 8 years from now these wonderful, moving images from Tahrir Square will be regarded just as bittersweet and misleading as those image from al-Firdaws Square 8 years ago. The dictator is gone from Cairo, but the 60-year regime he ran for the last 30 survives intact. He inherited a broken and impoverished country of 45 million people. There are 35 million more mouths to feed at the end of his reign. His generals stole from the national treasure at every turn while a generation of young people lost all hope for a better life. Every one of those generals and Field Marshals, trained in the discipline of the Free Officers movement, remains in charge in Cairo today. None of this bodes well.
When it comes to the Middle East, my default position is one of pessimism. Even so, I wish for the wonderful people of Egypt, whose hospitality I've enjoyed, a phenomenal future. They, like the Iraqis, deserve a future of tranquility and endless possibilities. It may make all the difference in the world that what happened in Tahrir Square came about as the result of peaceful people-power rather than as the result of a foreign invasion and nauseating "shock and awe."
So here are two images of the Arab world which we Americans must integrate, if we are ever to understand the Middle East: the lessons of that day known as 9/11; and the lessons of that day which should be known henceforth as 2/11. From 9/11 we learned and reflected back unspeakable hatred; from 2/11 we should learn that there is a much more complex, humane, and diverse Arab world than we ever imagined. Between al-Firdaws Square and Tahrir Square, I'm betting on Egypt, "the mother of the world."