A false springtime across the Arab world
18 October 2011
It’s become fashionable to refer to the current turmoil in the Middle East as the Arab Spring – a reference to the “Springtime of the Peoples” that swept Europe in 1848. The analogy is interesting, if only because 1848 didn’t end too well.
1848 saw a series of uprisings against monarchies that caused a Europe-wide collapse of traditional authority, but within a year the old regimes prevailed and the revolutions collapsed. With that in mind, let’s take stock of the Arab Spring.
• Egypt It’s by no means certain that a progressive government of any description will arise. Mubarak kept a lid on islamists, secular liberals and socialists but his overthrow may yet result in a reactionary, anti-secular regime. And now, the army has brutally sided with the islamists in the suppression of Coptic Christian dissent, deepening a sectarian divide which has put one tenth of the population on notice that the future may in fact be worse than the present.
• Bahrain The Sunni monarchy’s brutal crackdown on mainly Shia pro-democracy demonstrators elicited only a token dressing down from Hillary Clinton, and Saudi Arabia sent troops to assist the regime. A decisive win for the forces of reaction.
• Syria This uprising is supported by the international political left, largely because the insurgents have until now eschewed foreign intervention. Assad’s regime has so far demonstrated its control over the situation and the Western powers haven’t intervened in favour of the uprising. While nominally anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, Assad (like Mubarak), was previously relied upon by the US as a destination to which suspected al-Qaeda types could be “rendered” for torture.
• Yemen The pro-Western government is holding on with the help of US drones raining missiles down on suspected al-Qaeda figures. Secular parties aren’t in evidence and Yemen seems to be more of a tribal stoush with islamist overtones.
• Saudi Arabia The repressive Sunni kingdom is critical to the functioning of the US economy. So far there hasn’t been hardly a peep of resistance to the regime other than minor stirrings in some fleabitten Shiite towns in the eastern backwaters. Behind the scenes the US is pulling every lever to keep this asset in the safe hands of the House of Saud.
• Palestine Barak Obama has made the US position abundantly clear – support for the Zionist state and opposition to Palestinian nationhood no matter what the cost. The Arab Spring never got a look-in in Palestine.
• Libya This is the one that really gives the game away. For decades, Libya was a thorn in imperialism’s side. Gaddafi was only recently tempted into an accommodation with the West but even this couldn’t save him when the opportunity arose to install a more compliant regime.
Any thought Gaddafi might be replaced by something more democratic and progressive was always senseless. The man was about the closest to a secular progressive you could find in a fractured tribal society. The new mob are an unstable coalition of battle-hardened islamist forces and a rag-tag mob of “liberal” CIA-Wall Street types.
Just to make it absolutely clear that his is a client regime, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transition Council recently opined – during a press conference that he held along with Berlusconi’s defense minister Ignazio La Russa and British defense minister Liam Fox – that Italian colonialism had been much better than the Gaddafi regime. Actually, the Italian conquest and colonial rule over Libya was an infamously brutal affair whereas economically and socially, Libya made great strides during Gaddafi’s long tenure, whatever one may think of the dictator’s political style or dress sense.
In spite of constant NATO air strikes the war has now dragged on for seven months. Even an objective as small as Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, has proved difficult to capture, which proves that Gaddafi retains considerable support. Most likely, the West will be in Libya for years to come.
Much like the Egyptian uprising, the 1848 revolutions were led by shaky ad-hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, which didn’t hold together for long. Tens of thousands were killed and many more forced into exile. The missing element was strong, disciplined, progressive parties.
Most of the Arab world isn’t nearly as socially advanced as Egypt or 19th Century Europe. Unlike 1848, there’s a strong tribal or sectarian element in many of the Arab revolts.
The US and the other imperialist powers were thrown off guard by the Egyptian uprising, but they’re fighting back with diplomatic and military strategies designed to give themselves the best chance that when the dust settles, as much as possible of their control over the region vital to their oil-dependent economies will remain.