Having recently returned from Egypt, I have the Suez Canal on my mind. And looking at Iraq from Cairo, the thought occurred to me that maybe the Iraqis have just crossed the Suez Canal. If so, that's good news.
What am I talking about? There is no way that Egypt's President Anwar Sadat could have ever made peace with Israel had he not first launched his lightning strike across the Suez Canal on Yom Kippur, 1973. "The crossing," as that surprise attack became known in Egyptian lore, was as psychologically important as it was militarily important. It wiped away Egypt's humiliating loss in the 1967 war and gave Egyptians the dignity and self-confidence to make peace with Israel as military equals. While the military reality was more complex, Egyptians nevertheless felt they had liberated the Sinai themselves.
One of the first things I realized when visiting Iraq after the U.S. invasion was that the very fact that Iraqis did not liberate themselves, but had to be liberated by Americans, was a source of humiliation to them. It's one reason they never threw flowers. When someone else has to liberate you in your own home, that is humiliating and humiliation, I believe, is the single-most underestimated force in international relations, especially in the Middle East.
That also helps explain why Iraqis initially never took ownership of their governing institutions, like the Coalition Provisional Authority. They never fought for it. It was handed to them. People have to fight and win their own freedom, and that's what gives their institutions legitimacy.
What seems to have happened in Iraq in the last few months is that the Iraqi mainstream has finally done some liberating of itself. With the help of the troop surge ordered by President Bush, the mainstream Sunni tribes have liberated themselves from the grip of al-Qaida in their provinces. And the Shiite mainstream represented by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi army liberated Basra, Amara and Sadr City in Baghdad from both Mahdi Army militiamen and pro-Iranian death squads.
We may one day look back on this as Iraq's real war of liberation. The one we led five years ago didn't count.
And because Iraqis now have their own narrative of self-liberation, it appears to be giving more legitimacy and self-confidence to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and the Maliki regime. It also seems to have emboldened the Sunnis to take part in the next parliamentary elections after having largely boycotted the last round. The Kurds already liberated themselves and had that self-confidence.
It helped that al-Qaida and Iran both went too far. I've always believed that there is only one good thing about extremists: They don't know when to stop. Al-Qaida in Iraq went on murderous rampages against any Sunnis who opposed them, severing heads, forcing marriages, mowing down tribal leaders and slaughtering Shiites by the hundreds. Meanwhile, pro-Iranian Shiite extremists tried to impose a Taliban-like order in Basra and Baghdad from head scarves to bans on liquor on what is still a mostly secular-oriented Shiite majority.
Eventually, the Muslim-on-Muslim oppression seemed to spark the "we're-not-going-to-take-this-anymore" rage, which prompted both the Sunni and Shiite mainstreams to liberate themselves from their own extremists and, in so doing, actually take ownership of their own country.
Oddly enough, the person who best saw this backlash coming and warned how it could backfire on al-Qaida was Osama bin Laden's sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri. Remember the famous letter dated July 9, 2005, that Zawahiri sent to the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Zawahiri warned Zarqawi to stop murdering so many Shiites, and even Sunnis, with his campaign of suicide bombing and kidnapping.
"Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia," Zawahiri said in his letter. "The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques ... My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace, however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue ... Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable also are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages."
Zarqawi didn't take the advice.
But be advised: These parallel wars of self-liberation still don't amount to a single national unity movement. Civil war could still be in Iraq's future. Not all Sunnis and Shiites have had their "crossings." Iraq is miles away from being healthy. And now that Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities are taking more responsibility for their own country, you are also going to see an intense power struggle over who dominates within each community. With oil dollars piling up, there is a lot more to fight for.But if we're lucky, this struggle will play out primarily in the political arena. If we're not lucky? Well, let's just hope we're lucky.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.