What the West may be able to do for the Middle East

Tunisian demonstrators shout slogans and wave signs during a session at the National Assembly in Tunis.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Most of the attention being paid the Middle East and North Africa today is still on Libya. The White House announced unilateral sanctions this afternoon. The United Nations is debating a resolution calling what's happening there 'crimes against humanity.'

But in fact there've been protests all over the region, from Iraq to Bahrain, Jordan and Tunisia.

Here to talk about some of what's fueling those demonstrations is writer and commentator Reza Aslan. Welcome to the program.

Reza Aslan: Thanks. It's nice to be back on the show.

Ryssdal: These protests today and the past month and a half in the Middle East are certainly about democracy and for freedom, they want an end to corruption. But I wonder if it's not also a larger call for more basic needs, for more basic wants.

Aslan: At its core, whether you're talking Libya or Tunisia or Yemen or Egypt, this is about the growing economic disparity between the haves and have-nots. But make no mistake, this is a region in which economics and politics are intimately connected. And so when you're calling for greater political participation, that cannot be excised from the demand for greater economic rights.

Ryssdal: In the middle term, though, Reza, what do they want? If in the short term they want some kind of reform that's tangible, and in the longer, final term they want -- one assumes -- democracy, what's that middle ground?

Aslan: I guess the best way to put the middle ground is that they want the same kind of access to the economic opportunities that they see the people in positions of power having. Now that may be a pipe dream. However, there is an opportunity here for the West, and particularly for the United States. As you know, Kai, we've been sending $2 billion a year to Egypt, primarily so it can buy the tanks, the guns, the tear gas and the bullets that is used to create on the most oppressive police states in the region. What if we change course now, and instead begin to directly invest in this civic infrastructure and the economic infrastructure of Egypt? Then we have an opportunity not only to create a much more stable region, but we can re-frame the perceptions that Egyptians have of the United States. And even if we could change the very relationship between the Arab world and America.

Ryssdal: You read the papers, though, right? About the only thing that Americans agree on that ought to be cut from the budget these days is foreign aid and foreign assistance.

Aslan: That's true. But let's be honest: the $2 billion that we give to Egypt, the $1 billion to Jordan, and the $3 billion that we give to Israel -- nothing's going to happen to that money. It's still going to funneled into the militaries of these countries.

Ryssdal: There's a question tho be asked her about frustration, and you alluded to it a moment ago: How long will it take for people in the Middle East -- whether they're in Egypt, or Bahrain or even in Libya -- to become frustrated with the messiness of economic liberalism, once it eventually happens? I mean, they've been politically frustrated -- economic frustration is another thing entirely.

Aslan: I think you're absolutely right. But again, I think this is where the West can really come in and play the role of the savior. We had nothing to do with these revolutions. These were home grown revolutions by people who were demanding the most basic rights of dignity. But now that that transition has begun, there is a role for the Western world to make sure that the enthusiasm for political participation doesn't give way to the inevitable frustration with the slow rate of economic process that everyone knows is to be expected.

Ryssdal: Reza Aslan. His book is called "No god but God." He's also the founder of AslanMedia.com. Reza, thanks so much.

Aslan: My pleasure.

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