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Metro Detroit Arab Americans reflect on Arab Spring, foreign policy

Metro Detroit resident Ahmed Ghanim conducts an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Egyptian online news and information portal Masrawy.com, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 23, 2011.
State Department
Metro Detroit resident Ahmed Ghanim conducts an interview with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Egyptian online news and information portal Masrawy.com, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 23, 2011.

The “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have captured the attention of the whole world. And perhaps nowhere in the U.S. are the events being followed as closely as they are in metropolitan Detroit. The region is home to almost 500,000 Arab-Americans.

Many of those immigrants and their children say so far, the U.S. response to the wave of rebellions has left them hopeful that American foreign policy in the region is headed in the right direction.

“The game is changing”

When it came time to celebrate the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, about a hundred Egyptians crammed into a pizza parlor that sits in a little strip mall north of Detroit.

They listened to the same music their friends and family were hearing in Tahrir Square, and spent the night celebrating the revolution they’d spent their whole lives waiting for.

Ahmed Ghanim says before the revolution, U.S. foreign policy was stable. But he says that wasn’t a good thing for regular Egyptians.  Ghanim says the Mubarak regime took policy positions more aligned with American interests than Egyptians’.

“But after the revolution now it’s different and it’s actually from what we see the American administration themselves started to understand that the game’s changing and they have to change their moves,” said Ghanim.

Other Egyptians say they actually started to see a change before the “Arab Spring.” President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech gets singled out as a high point – signaling a new attitude toward the Arab and Muslim world.

“I like what President Obama said,” said Ayman Khafagi. “He was talking about the Muslim countries in general, but I would say that’s what we want for the relationship between Egypt and the United States: mutual respect and mutual interest.”

In that speech, the president said America and Islam share principles of progress, tolerance and dignity. And Egyptians like Ola Elsaid say dignity is exactly what the Egyptian people have found, after 30 years of having it trampled by the Mubarak regime.

“What we’d like to see is for America to look at Egypt and the Egyptian people as the bright young people we are, and what we can bring to America and the region,” Elsaid said, adding that the U.S. needs to listen to those same bright young people demonstrating in the streets of Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere in the region.

Extremism not a worry

As countries in the Middle East and North Africa transition to democracies, concerns about Islamic fundamentalism – often heard in the U.S. – are misplaced, say Arab-Americans in southeast Michigan.

“We’ve sort of developed a tendency to need to have something to fear,” said Asad Tarsin, a Libyian-American bringing his three kids up in suburban Detroit.

Tarsin says if you want to know whether extremism is likely to fill the vacuum left by Gadhafi, just look at how things are unfolding.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Tarsin. “You don’t have people, now that Libya is free and there’s freedom of speech and people have quote-unquote gotten what they needed from the US, that there are people burning US flags or saying down with America or down with the west, or even at Israel for that matter.”

“Real danger” is in allowing unrest to continue

Others say the people in the Arab world who need to be feared are the strongmen the U.S. government has tolerated or supported for much of the last century.

“There’s really no fear of having an extremist movement taking over these countries,” says Syria native Rami Jandali. “Having this affair go on and fester longer, this is where the true danger lies.”

Jandali is calm and matter-of-fact as he identifies the elderly woman with a black-and-blue face on his smart phone.

“You’re looking at a picture of my mother, after she was beaten – with a swollen eye, a black eye, and a swollen nose and mouth,” Jandali says of the gruesome picture on the tiny screen.

The bruised and bloody face of Jandali’s father is also posted online. Jandali’s brother Malek put them on his Facebook page. Malek Jandali is an accomplished professional pianist, and an outspoken critic of the Basar al-Assad regime. The beating his parents received at their home in Syria came on the heels of a pro-resistance concert Malek gave on the National Mall.

Rami Jandali says there’s no doubt in his mind the visit his parents were paid was retribution for his brother’s activism. And he says there are far, far more serious abuses being carried out by the Assad regime.

As the conflict drags on, Jandali says what Syrians want from the U.S. is not a lot.

“No one’s asking for military intervention, or even economic aid. Syria is a rich country,” said Jandali. “But I think the U.S. can use its enormous diplomatic influence. All that’s asked by the people is some form of protection.”

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.