TVOntario's flagship current affairs programme, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, televised my essay on why Canada owes it to ourselves and to the people of the Middle East to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text, which I abbreviated slightly for the broadcast, is below.
* * *
The Arab Spring, which bounded in like a lion, is in peril of being led out like a lamb to the slaughter.
Throughout the Middle East, millions of young people were intoxicated by the perfume of freedom wafting through their countries for the first times in their lives. Today, hundreds of them lie in early graves, and thousands more are sure to follow.
Many of us in Canada were swept up by their optimism, in awe of unarmed youth who seemed ready to stare down despots with little more than the force of their ideals. First came Tunisia, then Egypt, and it seemed inevitable that Libya and others would follow.
As dictators lose their hesitation to fire on their own people, Canada is faced with a brutal question of our own: what is our responsibility to these nascent democrats, and what, if anything, can we or should we do.
For most of our history, Canadian governments have been beguiled by Middle Eastern tyrants and their apologists into believing that as cruel as their regimes might be, they were somehow better than the alternatives lurking in the populations they held down.
The tyrants told us that their people had no cultural interest in democracy; that ordinary Arabs lacked the intelligence, the character, or the moral fibre to govern themselves democratically; that the only alternative to despotism was fundamentalism or anarchy; that our best interests as a western country lay in turning a blind eye to their abuses. And we blithely accepted this short-sighted bigotry in the name of sophisticated realpolitik.
Like so many western countries, we happily made deals with the devils, to trade justice for stability in the Middle East, and were then surprised to find that the world was left with neither.
The uprisings across the Arab world have given the lie to the despots and to our own self-deception.
The Algerians who committed acts of self-immolation so yearned for dignity that they gave up their lives instead of their autonomy; they were no one’s sheep. The Tunisian youth who toppled Ben Ali were amongst the best-educated and bravest people of their generation; they were no one’s fools. The Egyptian coalition that brought down Mubarak were led by secularists; they were no one’s cartoon fundamentalists.
As the uprisings spread, yet another lie came tumbling down: that Arabs in wealthy states are so stupefied by their riches, that they have no thought for their freedom. But gathering in town squares across the region were people of wildly differing economic classes, who all understood that a gilded cage remains a cage.
We can take pride in the fact that Canada answered the call of the Libyan people, and that Canadian jets are enforcing the no-fly zone to protect unarmed civilians from Qaddafi’s bombs and to cut off his supply of foreign mercenaries. As the people of the Middle East reshape their own political landscape, we have recognised that our best interests as Canadians lie in valuing their freedoms as much as we value our own.
Canada may not have the military capacity to cast our shield further afield than Libya, but we can refuse to remain silent, and not allow people throughout the Middle East to be dragged into the night. We can refuse to continue giving despots an honoured seat at the table in the community of nations. We can give comfort to those they would harm and give voice to those they would silence.
As the uprisings unfold in the coming weeks and months, I suspect that some will end in triumph, while others will end in tragedy. In any one country, today may not be freedom’s day. But that day will inevitably come. And when it does, Canadians will want to be able to hold our heads high in the knowledge that even in the darkest hours, we put aside our deals with the devils, and instead stood with the angels.