Who Will Reshape the Arab World: Its People, or the US?
Phase one of the Arab spring is over. Phase two
- the attempt to crush or contain genuine
popular movements - has begun
By Tariq Ali
The Guardian (UK)
April 29, 2011
The patchwork political landscape of the Arab world -
the client monarchies, degenerated nationalist
dictatorships and the imperial petrol stations known as
the Gulf states - was the outcome of an intensive
experience of Anglo-French colonialism. This was
followed after the second world war by a complex
process of imperial transition to the United States.
The result was a radical anticolonial Arab nationalism
and Zionist expansionism within the wider framework of
the cold war.
When the cold war ended Washington took charge of the
region, initially through local potentates then through
military bases and direct occupation. Democracy never
entered the frame, enabling the Israelis to boast that
they alone were an oasis of light in the heart of Arab
darkness. How has all this been affected by the Arab
intifada that began four months ago?
In January, Arab streets resounded to the slogan that
united the masses regardless of class or creed: "Al-
Sha'b yurid isquat al-nizam!" - "The people want the
downfall of the regime!" The images streaming out from
Tunis to Cairo, Saana to Bahrain, are of Arab peoples
on their feet once again. On 14 January, as chanting
crowds converged on the ministry of interior, Tunisia's
President Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.
On 11 February the national uprising in Egypt toppled
the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak as mass rebellion
erupted in Libya and the Yemen.
In occupied Iraq, demonstrators protested against the
corruption of the Maliki regime and, more recently,
against the presence of US troops and bases. Jordan was
shaken by nationwide strikes and tribal rebellion.
Protests in Bahrain spiralled into calls for the
overthrow of the monarchy, an event that scared the
neighbouring Saudi kleptocrats and their western
patrons, who can't conceive of an Arabia without
sultans. Even as I write, the corrupt and brutal
Ba'athist outfit in Syria, under siege by its own
people, is struggling for its life.
The dual determinants of the uprisings were both
economic - with mass unemployment, rising prices,
scarcity of essential commodities - and political:
cronyism, corruption, repression, torture. Egypt and
Saudi Arabia were the crucial pillars of US strategy in
the region, as confirmed recently by US vice-president
Jo Biden, who stated that he was more concerned about
Egypt than Libya. The worry here is Israel; the fear
that an out-of-control democratic government might
renege on the peace treaty. And Washington has, for the
time being, succeeded in rerouting the political
process into a carefully orchestrated change, led by
Mubarak's defence minister and chief of staff, the
latter being particularly close to the Americans.
Most of the regime is still in place. Its key messages
are the need for stability and a return to work,
putting a stop to the strike wave. Fevered behind-the
scenes negotiations between Washington and the Muslim
Brotherhood are continuing. A slightly amended old
constitution remains in force and the South American
model of huge social movements producing new political
organisations that triumph at the polls and institute
social reforms is far from being replicated in the Arab
world, thus not posing any serious challenge, until
now, to the economic status quo.
The mass movement remains alert in both Tunisia and
Egypt but is short of political instruments that
reflect the general will. The first phase is over. The
second, that of rolling back the movements, has begun.
The Nato bombing of Libya was an attempt by the west to
regain the "democratic" initiative after its dictators
were toppled elsewhere. It has made the situation
worse. The so-called pre-empting of a massacre has led
to the killing of hundreds of soldiers, many of whom
were fighting under duress, and permitted the ghastly
Muammar Gaddafi to masquerade as an anti-imperialist.
Here one has to say that whatever the final outcome,
the Libyan people have lost. The country will either be
partitioned into a Gaddafi state and a squalid pro-west
protectorate led by selected businessmen, or the west
will take out Gaddafi and control the whole of Libya
and its huge oil reserves. This display of affection
for "democracy" does not extend elsewhere in the
In Bahrain, the US green-lighted a Saudi intervention
to crush local democrats, enhance religious
sectarianism, organise secret trials and sentence
protesters to death. Bahrain today is a prison camp, a
poisonous mixture of Guantánamo and Saudi Arabia.
In Syria the security apparatus led by the Assad family
is killing at will, but without being able to crush the
democratic movement. The opposition is not under the
control of Islamists: it is a broad coalition that
includes every social layer apart from the capitalist
class that remains loyal to the regime.
Unlike in other Arab countries, many Syrian
intellectuals stayed at home, suffering prison and
torture, and secular socialists like Riad Turk and many
others are part of the underground leadership in
Damascus and Aleppo. Nobody wants western military
intervention. They don't want a repeat of Iraq or
Libya. The Israelis and the US would prefer Assad to
stay as they once did Mubarak, but the dice are still
in the air.
In Yemen, the despot has killed hundreds of citizens
but the army has split, and Americans and Saudis are
trying desperately to stitch together a new coalition
(as in Egypt) - but the mass movement is resisting any
deals with the incumbent.
The US has to contend with an altered political
environment in the Arab world. It is too soon to
predict the final outcome, except to say it is not over
Tariq Ali is an editor of the New Left Review and a
political commentator. His latest book is The Obama
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