Tunis, Tunisia – Outrage was already widespread across the Arab world over the Israeli assault on Gaza when the bombing of al-Ahli Arab Hospital, which killed more than 400 people, tipped the anger over into new territory.
Protesters took to the streets to declare that enough was enough with the West and its dogged support of Israel that rendered it incapable of acknowledging the inhuman violence being meted out to Gaza around the clock and going back years.
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In Beirut, Tunis and Cairo, crowds confronted tear gas and water cannon as they protested against what Tunisians called the “allies of Zionists”. The US embassy in Cairo warned of “anti-US sentiment” as demonstrators gathered.
As popular anger took hold, crowds in the streets voiced their rejection of Western foreign policy and its attempts to project its influence – or soft power.
Western soft power in the region comes in different forms, all intended to predispose people to the West through cultural centres, funding civil society, educational outreach, hosting events, and encouraging consumption of cultural products from the Western country.
As the loci of world power shift and countries like China, India and Russia compete for influence with the traditional European and US presences, soft power becomes as important as security cooperation and military power.
And as anger grows over the West’s unflinching support of Israel as it bombards Gaza, activists across the region are rejecting it, pointing to Western hypocrisy in favouring Israeli lives over their own.
‘Arab kids don’t matter’
Many Tunisians see the current presence of the West in their country as an extension of the legacy of colonisation.
Tunisian activist Henda Chennaoui and many of her fellow activists see the Israel-Gaza war as a continuation of the Western legacy of colonisation, and she predicts that anti-Western attitudes will spread.
“We’re angry. They kept telling us that the fight for freedom and democracy and all kinds of rights is a common fight,” Chennaoui said. “Now, we see that Arab and Muslim communities and kids don’t matter.
“It’s time to say that the time of colonisation is over. We need to recognise it and talk about it.”
Israel has diplomatic relations both within the Arab world and outside it, but few are as strong as its bond with the US, which provides it with $3.3bn in military aid each year.
On October 18, US President Joe Biden visited Israel to show his support for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sitting across from Netanyahu during a public appearance in Tel Aviv, Biden told him: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it [al-Ahli Hospital attack] was done by the other team, not you.”
Netanyahu thanked him for his “unequivocal support”.
Gala Riani, the head of strategic intelligence at the security agency S-RM, said Biden’s public show of support for Israel is just the latest in a series of policies that have made people more wary of Western soft power advances.
The wariness, she pointed out, began as far back as the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago and former US President Barack Obama’s pivot away from the Middle East.
That does not mean its soft power is completely neutered. “The US continues to have a certain element of cultural ‘pull’ for the region,” Riani said.
“But the picture is complicated by the tension between elements of US culture – which may remain potent – and its regional policies which many people in MENA take issue with. Soft power is … a complicated piece when viewed from [MENA].”
Is the West on its way out?
Within Tunisia, as within much of MENA, Western influence is receiving pushback. In Tunisia, the influential anticorruption NGO, I Watch announced that it would no longer accept US funding in light of its support for Israel. Elsewhere in the North African country, a proposed law, limiting NGOs’ freedom to act independently, is receiving new impetus as the perception takes hold across society that many of the country’s local NGOs are in fact Trojan Horses for Western influence and double standards, an analyst said.
One Tunisian employed by a European NGO spoke of their frustration over the donor government’s support for Israel.
The NGO’s building in Tunis had been vandalised by protesters and the employee, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said: “I can understand the anger of the people that attack our building.”
The agency, the employee said, allegedly dismissed all its staff in Ramallah following the initial outbreak of hostilities.
“But we’re all individuals who work there and the actions of the [European country’s] government have nothing to do with the opinion of most employees … it [did] affect my view on my employer. I think it’s time for a public statement,” they said.
At the same time, advertisements for the Russia Today news channel have surged since Hamas invaded Israel in early October, possibly because international competitors smell blood in traditionally European media waters.
“I think it’s going to be very hard for the West to recover from this,” Tunisian essayist and commentator Hatem Nafti said.
“It’s disappointing for those of us who care about things such as liberal democracy and human rights to see those causes undermined like this,” Nafti continued, pointing out how Europe and the US’s actions in Israel had made it almost impossible to argue against the region’s autocrats and dictators’ case that the West’s true concern for democracy and rights ended with white people.
“It’s across the board now, look at how the supporters of [Tunisia’s President] Kais Saied are using Western support for Israel to undermine the NGOs they suspect the West may be subsidising. Even the tiny minority of those in parliament who might vote against that can’t.
“It goes further,” he continued. “Every family has at least one member living in Europe. They’re feeding this back to them. They’re relaying their own experience of Europe’s double standard back to Tunisia and North Africa. That’s going to carry consequences.”
Joost Hiltermann, MENA programme director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, told Al Jazeera in an email that European soft power is fading.
“Europe’s influence in the Middle East, already limited, may well decline further as people see it casting aside the very values it professes to uphold and seeks to export,” he said, before the hospital bombing.
He pointed to some European politicians declaring support for Israel at the start of the war, with scant mention of the Palestinian struggle.
They include figures like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who underscored Israel’s “right to defend itself” without comment on the Palestinian lives lost.
“Europe’s decision to declare solidarity with its ally Israel but without urging it to exercise restraint in its military assault on Gaza consistent with its obligations under international humanitarian law may well come at a high price,” Hiltermann said.
Source: Al Jazeera