various commentaries on the middle east

"Neither With the West, Nor Against It"

The New Arab Awakening

A large Muslim country is overwhelmed by strikes and demonstrations. This pillar of US regional policy is damaged by authoritarian rule and its resources are looted by the president’s family; there is social and economic crisis; Washington abandons an old ally and the US Secretary of State calls on a dictator to stand down and allow for democratic transition.
This may sound like Egypt in 2011. In fact, it was Indonesia in May 1998, and the call for President Suharto to stand down came from Madeleine Albright, not Hillary Clinton. He had seized power in 1965 with the help of the CIA in a coup in which half a million communists, or suspected communists, were killed.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Indonesia was no longer needed as a bulwark against communism; the US decided it would rather support democratic movements, and direct them to suit its interests. President Bill Clinton wanted to project a more open image of the US. It turned out to be a wise choice, and Indonesia has maintained close relations with the US, even though, as an active member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, it has taken an independent stance on the Iranian nuclear issue.
What do we learn from this? No dictatorship lasts forever, even when it rules the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Internal changes influence foreign policy, but the extent of evolution depends on the context: Egypt is not Indonesia, and the Middle East is not Southeast Asia.
It has been commonplace for western politicians and diplomats to sneer at the “Arab street”; they asked if we really needed to listen to hundreds of millions of people with their Islamist and anti-western slogans when we got on so well with their leaders, who were so good at maintaining order, and extended such warm hospitality. (Between 1995 and 2001, 400 French government ministers spent their holidays in Morocco.) These leaders maintained the fiction of the Israel-Palestine peace process, even as Israeli settlements spread.

The fantasy that the Arabs are passive and unsuited to democracy has evaporated in weeks. Arabs have overthrown hated authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, they have fought a sclerotic regime in power for 42 years that has refused to listen to their demands, facing extraordinary violence, hundreds of deaths, untold injuries, mass exodus and generalised chaos. In Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, the West Bank and Oman, Arabs have taken to the streets in vast numbers. This defiance has spread even to non-Arab Iran.

And where promises of reform have been made but were then found wanting, people have simply returned to the streets. In Egypt, protesters have demanded faster and further-reaching reform. 

In Tunisia, renewed demonstrations on 25-27 February led to five deaths but won a change of prime minister (Mohamed Ghannouchi stepped down in favour of Beji Caid-Essebsi). In Iraq, renewed protests led to a promise to sack unsatisfactory ministers. In Algeria, the 19-year emergency law was repealed amid continuing protests. The demands are growing throughout the region, and will not be silenced.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Libya, and all the other popular movements that have shaken the region are not just about how people want to live and develop, but about regional politics. For the first time since the 1970s, geopolitics cannot be analysed without taking into account, at least in part, the aspirations of people who have retaken control of their destinies.

This is certainly the case with Egypt. Even if it is too early to predict foreign policy, Washington has lost an unconditional ally: US regional strategy has relied on Egypt, along with Israel (with which Sadat signed a peace treaty in 1979), for the last 30 years. Egypt took part in the 1990-91 Gulf war against Iraq, and Mubarak was at the forefront of the fight against the “Iranian threat”. 

He maintained the illusion of the Middle East “peace process”, putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority to continue negotiations, and regularly welcomed Israeli leaders to Sharm el-Sheikh, even though it was clear they had no intention of agreeing a peace accord. Egypt under Mubarak participated in the economic blockade of Gaza and helped scupper all attempts at reconciliation by Hamas and Fatah, even one negotiated by another “moderate” country, Saudi Arabia (the Mecca accord of May 2007). During the uprising, some demonstrators waved placards in Hebrew, claiming the only language Mubarak understood was that of Israel’s leaders.



Current issue: March 2011

...new Arab Awakening: US fears as regional order slips; Arab armies rethink their role;Libya, warring tribes; Egypt, enter the Brothers; West Bank, anger at PA, Egypt, workers want a better deal; Algeria, symbol of resistance fades; Stuxnet, cyberwars ahead? Latin America-Palestine love affair;South-South alliances; Georgia, no place like home; organic farming’s own goal? Northern Ireland’s dissident dramas... and more...



The Counter-Revolution

Fissures in the Arab Revolts

There will be blood. No revolution comes in a straight line. Counter-revolution runs its steady course from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia through Egypt and into Libya. In Qatif, the Saudi National Guard opened fire on a protest, a phenomenon which has become commonplace in Bahrain. Inside Egypt, rumors fly that it is the security services that orchestrated the attacks on Copts and women (at a march on the 100th anniversary of international women's day). Libya is in the throes of an asymmetrical civil war, with Qaddafi's forces and the rebels running a bloody standoff somewhere near the meridian that divides the country into its eastern and western halves. Jubilation at the hasty departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak settle into a time-sequence that is less exhilarating, but nonetheless impressive. It appears as if the people are not to be content by the first flush of victory. What is wanted is more, and this is where the counter-revolution comes in.


At one end of the Arab Revolt is Libya, where the guns are not silent, and threats of military intervention confound discussions in Brussels. The itch to invade mirrors the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003, but with the accents reversed: the French and the English are eager to thrust themselves, while the Americans and the Germans hesitate. NATO warships sail closer to the Libyan coast, and talk of "no-fly zones" intensifies. U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly warns that any military confrontation would be seen as a declaration of war. An exhausted U. S. military machine is not capable of yet another war. And besides, the political outcomes of intervention in Libya are unclear.

Qaddafi's hardened armies and the rebels, led as they are by ex-ministers of Qaddafi's regime (such as Mustafa Abdul Jalil), continue to battle along the Mediterranean road, between Surt and Ras Lanuf. One day the rebels advance, and the next Qaddafi's forces. In his dreams, Qaddafi saves nations. Awake, he razes cities. That has been the fate of some of these cities on the edge of the Gulf of Sidra. The "oil dole" and clan favoritism has enabled Qaddafi to secure support in the western part of Libya. The east is largely in the hands of the rebels. With a weak military capacity, the rebels nonetheless have Benghazi in hand and the more urbane set within Qaddafi's troupe are loath to assume that it can be taken back militarily. It would probably be mete for the National Libyan Council (the government of the east) to declare themselves as the authentic government of Libya and wait. As oil revenue dwindle to the west and if an arms embargo holds, pressure on Qaddafi from below might set the western part of Libya aflame. The working class of Tripoli is restive. Their neighborhoods, such as Feshloon and Tejura, are on permanent lock-down. Martyrs lie on autopsy tables at Tripoli Central Hospital. The workers are not pusillanimous; they are waiting for their moment. Military intervention from NATO will only strengthen Qaddafi's hand, allowing him to don the robes of the revolutionary against imperialist attack. The workers are also patriots. They might lose their resolve against Qaddafi if they see French and English speaking troops conducting Iraq War style raids into their homes.

Qaddafi continues to insist that the NLC is the mask of al-Qaeda. The Muslim Brotherhood has certainly a long lineage in the eastern part of Libya, bordering as it does Egypt, the home of the Brotherhood. Sections of the Brotherhood morphed into much more hardened fighters after their sojourn as part of the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (al-Jama'a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya), and returned to eastern Libya to take on Qaddafi. His forces cracked down with force, largely against the main figures of the Group, but also against Salafis who were not radical (such as Muhammad al-Bashti, brutally tortured to death in 1981). 

The Group tried to maintain its strength, and it did benefit from the Algerian Islamist uprising. A crippling blow came in October 1997, when the Libyan forces killed the Group's most important commander, Salah Fathi bin Salman (who was known as Abu Abd al-Rahman Hattab). Qaddafi's early support for the U. S. led "War on Terror" earned him quick dividends. The Group's remaining intellectual leaders were swept up in 2004, Abu Munder al-Saidi in Hong Kong and Abdullah Sadeq in Thailand: they went into the black hole of Libya's prison system. 

What could have been the rump of an Islamist uprising had been fully destroyed. What is now in command in eastern Libya is not al-Qaeda aspirants, but regional forces who have long-standing grievances against Tripoli. The counter-revolution prefers to see them as Islamists, and hopes to drive the stake of fear into the heart of nearby Europe.