With ‘friends’ like Western governments, the Arab Spring doesn’t need enemies

by · February 1, 2012

Protesters in Tahrir unfurl the flag of the Syrian rebellion

This article first appeared on the ABC Drum website yesterday.

One of the abiding images of the Arab Spring has been an aerial view of Tahrir Square in Cairo, brimming with thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of protesters. This image has returned most spectacularly on the first anniversary of the 25 January uprising, with Tahrir not just full but overflowing onto dozens of streets, boulevards and bridges, the biggest mobilisation yet. It is in such displays that the term “people power” takes on real meaning, when the great mass of humanity takes an active role in making history.

The Arab Spring has not just been a set of domestic struggles for freedom, it has also profoundly reshaped regional and global geopolitics. The pictures from Tahrir bring to mind the formulation employed by the New York Times, at the moment of the great demonstrations against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, that protesters had become the second superpower of world politics.

If the wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is about “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of their own destiny”, it has also provoked a reaction from those whose interests had been served by systems of control and repression in the region. In this, the governments of Western liberal democracies have played a particularly insidious role in encouraging, funding and arming the most brutal regimes on the expectation that they could provide “stability” and “security” for Western interests, especially interests linked to the geopolitics of oil.

Despite this, much mainstream commentary has been dominated by a naïve belief that Western governments will now “do the right thing” and support the Arab Awakening. In addition, a series of figures on the Left, like Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar, long-time critic of US foreign policy Juan Cole, and my On Utøya collaborator Guy Rundle, argued that the Left had a duty to support NATO intervention in Libya (or in Achcar’s case at least not oppose it). In this they ran a left-wing version of the argument that Gaddafi was about unleash a massacre and that calls for NATO involvement should be uncritically supported as an act of solidarity with the revolution. Even the usually anti-war Australian Greens were almost as belligerent in their calls for military action in Libya as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

I want to argue that for all those inspired by Arab Spring, the last people we should look to help those movements are our home grown leaders who have spent so long supporting tyrannical regimes “over there”. No matter what cuddly phrases about “democracy” and “freedom” they insert in their speeches, when they increase their meddling in the Middle East it is inevitably to limit, restrain and repress the legitimate aspirations of the region’s ordinary people.

The Arab uprisings have destabilised a region in which Western powers had nurtured relations with a host of “friendly dictators”. In response to these setbacks, they have rushed to recalibrate strategies and tactics to try to regain the advantage, to reimpose networks of control. This, and not their woolly liberal democratic language, is the consistent thread that runs through their actions since February 2011.

To reassert their power “our” governments have turned to a number of strategies with varying degrees of success, five of which I explore here.

(1) Undermine or coopt opposition movements

When Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Rudd initially refused to come out in clear support of Egyptian protesters’ demands, in particular defending Hosni Mubarak’s continued rule, it was not simply a matter of being caught on the hop but because they had for so long relied on the dictator. As Tony Blair opined at the time, to them Mubarak had “been immensely courageous and a force for good”. Clinton made the relationship crystal clear in 2009 when she said, “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.” Vice-President Joe Biden even had the temerity to claim — even as teargas canisters made in the USA were being used against Egyptian protesters — that Mubarak was “not a dictator” and shouldn’t step down.

Such a strategy soon became untenable as Mubarak looked certain to go, but Western leaders and their mouthpieces in the media have continued to send thinly veiled messages that opposition movements represent a threat to stability and the development of Western-style market liberalism. Thus, after February we were plied with the line that continued military rule was still needed in Egypt because of the Islamist “threat”. Then, when elections produced landslide wins for Islamist parties, and anti-military protests grew larger and bolder, the focus shifted onto various liberal forces and even dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as potential stabilisers against more radical elements, especially once Islamist leaders showed their willingness to continue neoliberal policies favoured by Western interests.

(2) Green light repression

For all the talk of how the United States was supporting movements for change by intervening in Libya, in nearby Bahrain where it bases part of the Fifth Fleet it was doing quite the opposite. Obama gave Saudi Arabia the green light to invade Bahrain to help the latter regime crush the pro-democracy movement. Senior US sources later revealed this had been in exchange for the Saudis engineering Arab League support for a “no-fly zone” in Libya. Bahrain remains a firm Western ally, with US arms sales continuing despite “concerns” about the regime’s actions. The US also more tacitly backed the Yemeni regime as it carried out repression, and then continued to work with dictator Saleh to stall democratisation.

(3) Talk “reform” while defending dictatorships

Western governments have ramped up verbal encouragement of “reform” and “moves to democratisation” in the region. Yet except for Libya, and now perhaps Syria, that has meant refusing to call for regimes to go until no other result is possible. The case of Saudi Arabia is most egregious — an incredibly repressive monarchy based on untold oil riches but denying the most basic of democratic rights to its native population, let alone the temporary workers it super-exploits. Despite the emergence of protests against the Saudi regime, the main Western intervention in its affairs in the last year has been British PM David Cameron’s recent trip to sell it more arms (as does the United States), some of which are used to quell internal unrest and assist in military operations against civilian populations in other states. Cameron waxed lyrical about the dictatorship during his trip:

Saudi Arabia is our largest trading partner in the Middle East… but it also has unique influence in the region and in the Islamic world. …  People who think we shouldn’t be friends with — or our prime minister shouldn’t be visiting — a country that is such an important ally and such an important force in the world would be advocating a head-in-the-sand policy, and that is not in our national interest.

Indeed this is part of a general strategy to bolster the strength of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is made up of six oil-rich dictatorships (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE and Qatar) and which has become the hub of oil-centred capitalist development across the region. It is the GCC’s ties to the West and weight within the Arab League that has helped Western leaders to get the League to fall into line, especially as allies like Egypt become less reliable. There are also more direct economic advantages that rich nations are trying to secure. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — but also other countries across the region — organisations like the IMF, World Bank and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (which drove neoliberal shock therapy in Eastern Europe) are demanding harsher market reforms in exchange for loans, aid and investment.


Obama, Sarkozy & Cameron — hijacking the struggle for liberation

(4) Hijack rebellions

As mentioned above, the Arab League was vital to providing a fig leaf of legitimacy to the NATO intervention in Libya. Despite its rapprochement with the West in the 2000s, the Gaddafi regime’s crisis provided an opportunity for Western military action not afforded by other Arab Spring events. Gaddafi could still be portrayed as a recent enemy of Western interests — a “mad dog” who supported terrorism — at the same time as a relatively immature and weak revolutionary movement could be convinced to accept Western help when it couldn’t immediately defeat the dictator. Utilising the rhetoric of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect”, NATO ignored the letter of UN Resolution 1973 in order to drive regime change.

As historian and former International Crisis Group director Hugh Roberts pointed out in his detailed account of the machinations behind the war, NATO powers repeatedly refused Gaddafi’s offers for immediate ceasefire by imposing impossible conditions on him. This not only made war inevitable, it also prolonged the conflict so that perhaps 30,000 were killed and another 50,000 injured in order to avert an allegedly impending massacre that Gaddafi had no serious chance of carrying out. For all the admonitions from the White House that Arab protesters must remain non-violent and show restraint, the bloody mess in Libya and the celebration of Gaddafi’s death simply revealed how selective the West is about when violence and chaos are acceptable — that is, when they fit within its own strategic plans. NATO involvement also tipped the balance of forces within the revolution towards former Gaddafi stalwarts and other reactionaries. The new ruling clique has shown its eagerness to woo Western big business but has fallen foul of its erstwhile supporters because of its lack of transparency, moves to limit democratic rights, and its ties to Gaddafi’s old regime, not to mention its continuing torture of prisoners.

The Syrian democracy movement, meanwhile, has been incredibly tenacious despite horrific repression by Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces, which has left an estimated 5,500 people dead. But there are signs that its inability to topple the dictator are leading some factions — in particular the Syrian National Council — to seek foreign intervention. The SNC clearly intends to woo the West with promises of a quick regime change while keeping the murderous state machine intact. As one of its spokepeople argues, “We want to distinguish between the regime and the state in Syria. There will not be chaos like in Libya. We still have powerful military institutions that we want to preserve.”

(5) Ramp up the threat of war

Meanwhile Israel has championed the cause of military strikes against Al-Assad’s allies in Tehran, allegedly to wipe out a nascent Iranian nuclear weapons program. It has become apparent that Israeli forces are murdering Iranian nuclear scientists in what should properly be called acts of terrorism. In a quaint bit of double-speak, the Israeli Defence Minister said that military strikes on Iran were “very far off” but wouldn’t say whether this meant weeks or months!

Yet there is nothing quite like the threat of a full-blown military crisis to help reassert control in the region. The US has stepped up diplomatic and military manoeuvres against Iran, despite Israeli and Western intelligence assessments indicating the country is nowhere near even starting a nuclear weapons program. Most commentators seem oblivious to the irony that the campaign to stop such a program is being run by a series of countries armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons: The US, Israel, the UK and France among them. Further, Asia Times reports:

[T]he US has now dropped its demand that countries such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates agree not to enrich uranium as part of their growing nuclear relations with the US. Simultaneously, the US and Europe continue to insist that Iran should divest itself of this right, thus giving a new edge to double standards.

Behind talk of helping protesters in Syria and stopping an “irrational” regime in Tehran, the real reason for this bellicosity is that the West and its Israeli and GCC allies see Iran as standing in the way of their strategic dominance over the whole region. It is the same logic that means Obama’s words about decreasing US involvement in Afghanistan mask an open-ended and escalating war.

What sort of solidarity?

To understand the actions of Western powers in response to the Arab revolutions it is necessary to penetrate beneath the rhetoric of politicians and mainstream pundits. A better indication comes from the recently released Pentagon rethinking of US power, which sees as an aim the creation of an unfettered right to act against any strategic incursion by rivals. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense singles out China and Iran, and ominously recalls Bush-era notions of “full spectrum dominance” when it argues that the “United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged”.

After a year of revolts two complex processes are unwinding in competition with each other. On the one hand, in several countries opposition movements have either won tremendous gains or held their ground in the face of brutal repression that has been covertly or openly supported by “our” governments. This process is most highly developed in Egypt where demands for political freedom have been radicalised by the intransigence of the military regime, and have also started to connect with socioeconomic demands made by an increasingly organised and militant independent workers’ movement. The latter development has been in large part driven by worsening economic conditions, for which the military rulers have no solution.

On the other hand, local rulers and their backers in Western power structures have regained some of the advantage through a mixture of carrot and stick, with the emphasis firmly on the latter. Part of that approach has been the promulgation of the idea that the West is part of the solution, when in fact their actions have been to head off more fundamental social and political change. The instability has led to a stepping up of repression in several countries and growing talk of further military adventures.

In these circumstance calls by progressives here for further Western intervention are disastrous for the building of real solidarity. As Libya demonstrated, such intervention will only come on terms set by rich nations seeking to shore up their interests. One mistake that some on the Left have made is to assume that because US power has been weakened by the Arab revolts, it is more easily used to advance worthwhile ends. This not only vastly overstates US weakness, it creates the impression that the second superpower on the streets of the Arab world cannot rely on its own power to drive social change; that it needs to mortgage its fortunes to powerful patrons whose designs are anything but beneficent.

This is not to say that anyone should feel the slightest sympathy for dictators like Gaddafi and Al-Assad. Nor should the presence of pro-Western elements in opposition movements lead to doubts about the genuineness of popular struggles when the regimes happen to also be in Western crosshairs.

Surely the best support we can give people fighting tyrannies is the promise that we will act here to try to stop our rulers from twisting events to their own advantage. The diabolical problem of Middle East politics has never been a shortage of Western intervention — Western governments have been constantly interfering for well over a century. But that intervention has always been primarily in their interests, and never on the side of genuine freedom and justice. That’s the kind of intervention we should be demanding ends, once and for all, so that Arab people can decide their own destinies.