Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Impotence of the Arab Revolutionaries

As much as I admire the courage of the brave people taking to the streets in almost every Arab country, their actual impact on the future of their respective countries is quite limited. Contrary to the common narrative, it is not on Tahrir Square or in Benghazi where the successes of the revolutionary campaigns are decided but in Washington, Paris and London. It is there, in the old capitals of colonialism and imperialism, where thumps go up or thumps go down, in function of the interests of a Western agenda rarely in sync with the aspirations of the Arab streets. Thanks to the Rebels of Eastern Libya who, in tango with the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, somehow convinced French president Nicolas Sarkozy to push hard for an allied air shield to support their attempt to get rid off Colonel Gadhafi, we once again have Western bombs falling on Arab soil.

The West is choosing its theaters and scopes of engagement very selectively. Where do we stand then? Here is a short journey through the Arab world with the state of things as I see it. 

Tunisia: the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi and the ensuing heavy protest soon reaching Tunis clearly surprised the Tunisian CEO Ben Ali. In hindsight, he might have left his post and country too quickly. Western countries have a higher tolerance for violence against protesters - see the example of Bahrain - as Ben Ali anticipated in his last hours. His room to maneuver was bigger than he was told. But he left and now Tunisia is picking up the pieces of his collapsed regime.

Egypt: was #Jan25 a real revolution? Or rather a military coup covered up by the masses on Tahrir Square? Mubarak is gone but old habits die hard. The army committee running Egypt now has passed anti-protests laws last week and there is much talk of sexual harassment of female revolutionaries still shouting for Egypt to change. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was in Cairo, touring Tahrir, beaming and generally liking what she saw. Egypt is still honoring the peace treaty with Israel, that's all we care for, and don't bother the hunger for a free and democratic Egypt.

Bahrain: my Twitter buddy @Radiya_Oh asked me the other day what was going on in Bahrain. I took much risk answering her. Quoting myself: "I know people gonna kill me for this, because everybody on Twitter says, Bahrain is not sectarian, but I think it is, to a certain extent. As I understand it: in Bahrain we have 70% Shia and 30% Sunni, the Sunni are a minority but they rule the country, through the al-Khalifa family who holds the power since 1820. Apparently some jobs in Bahrain are not available for Shia like military and police, together with other disadvantages as a Shia, eg political under-representation in the Bahraini "parliament". What we have now is a Shia majority feeling deprived of their rights; an economic situation that seems to be quite ok, but there is unemployment, especially among women; people who are contesting the monarchist rule in general, wanting more democracy coming their way; and Iran and Bahraini radicals from both sects that would like to take advantage of the protests and further their agenda, in Bahrain and in the Gulf. And as outside powers we have Saudi Arabia (they fear that any growing Iranian influence, any Iranian/Shia success in Bahrain, could boost their own Shia minority in the East of their country) and the US (for them, Bahrain is very important; their 5th Navy fleet is based there and the US is of course generally opposed to anything Iranian). For now the protests have been crushed with the help of Saudi troops (the Saudi couldn't tolerate an unstable situation at their borders any longer) and the US has remained quite silent about this, although they pretend to support democratic movements (but of course only as long as they don't interfere with their politics). I don't think the troubles in Bahrain are over yet. And I hope my answer makes sense." Does it?

Saudi Arabia: basically, protesting in Saudi Arabia has been banned. As much as the US and Saudi Arabia coordinate on a zillion matters, this ban must have been coordinated with and approved by the White House as well.

Palestine! The protests on #March15 have been violently suppressed by Hamas and Fatah who seem to be quite happy with the status quo: the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank. Since then Hamas has restarted to fire rockets at Israel, almost begging for a repeat of the Cast Lead onslaught of 2009. What is Hamas' goal? My take: they try to re-strengthen their grip on Gaza by closing the ranks under Israeli fire. And maybe draw Egypt into a conflict from which Cairo has largely abstained for the last 30 years. Listening to the people and their quest for freedom? Nope. Western powers enforcing a no-fly zone over Gaza should Israel put their F-16s in motion? Are you kiddin' me?

the devil we know? Bashar al-Assad (right) in Paris, 2008.

Syria: and now the freedom flu has struck Bashar al-Assad. Stability in Syria is important for many countries outside the Arab world. And stability means Assad, father and son, with an emergency law in place in Syria since 1963. A few weeks ago the US has sent a new ambassador to Damascus, for the first time since 2005, and in 2008 Bashar al-Assad was the guest of honor of Sarkozy's #July14 celebrations in Paris (which of course could mean a French led military intervention in Syria is just a matter of time...). Bashar knows that the West needs him and his network for meddling in the Middle East. And not only as a transit destination for rendition flights to Guantanamo. Already Syria has checked back with Washington on how to deal with the unrest and already Clinton has said that the US won't intervene in Syria. My prediction: Assad can already plan for this year's "Quatorze Juillet" on the Champs-Elysées. An indication for things in Syria going the other way? Christian Amanpour interviewing Bashar on ABC (as Simon Tisdall suggested in The Guardian last Friday).

Libya: I stick with my opinion previously laid out in this blog: the Western military intervention is a multi-edged sword. As Stephen M. Walt explains in Foreign Policy: foreign imposed regime change has a bad track record. Why? Because "deposing an existing regime and bringing new leaders to power disrupts state power and foments new grievances and resentments. To make matters worse, the probability of civil war in the aftermath of foreign imposed regime change increases even more when it is accompanied by defeat in inter-state war, and when it occurs in poor and ethnically heterogeneous (in Libya make this "tribal") countries". 

Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, speaks out against the UNSC sanctioned NATO operations in yet another Foreign Policy article this weekend (which of course can be read as part of a PR campaign by the Gadhafi clan). "If foreign intervention is good", so Museveni, "then African countries should be the most prosperous countries in the world, because we have had the greatest dosages of that: the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, etc." And: "if you promote foreign backed insurrections in small countries like Libya, what will you do with the big ones like China? Are you going to impose a no-fly zone over China in case of some internal insurrections, as happened in Tiananmen Square, in Tibet, or in Urumqi?" The example of Odyssey Dawn has set a precedent in 2011 and Western capitals will have to answer many questions when reacting or rather not reacting to conflicts in the years to come. The Libyan rebels on their part will have to learn that there are no free beers in international politics and somewhere down the road to Tripolis, they will have to pay back their sponsors in hard political or economical currency.

Let's end our tour with Lebanon, the - who ever would have thought this - most stable country in the Middle East right now. The secular movement hashtagged #UniteLB on Twitter, trying to challenge the sectarian system in Lebanon, has rapidly peaked after its start, with big egos clashing at the movement's meeting, according to tweets by @nmoawad. In a country with 18 official sects, the movement of good intentions has a tough stand. Maybe the #UniteLB people should proclaim themselves the 19th sect of Lebanon for more internal cohesion and more external recognition.

In Lebanon the foreign forces don't even need to intervene to get nothing done. The fabulous Lebanese system of sectarian checks and balances prevents developments in any meaning of the word. But, a stumbling Syria will reverberate in Lebanon. The sheer thought of a future without Syria is rattling Hezbollah like a tsunami. For Israel, Assad is "the devil we know" and they rather have the heavy handed doctor running the ambulance in Damascus than an unpredictable democrat. It's not the first time and it won't be the last time that Hezbollah and Israel share the same fears: what if there is peace in the Middle East and the confrontationists are not needed anymore?

PS: I realize that I didn't cover all the countries hit by revolutionary unrest. I could have talked about Yemen, Jordan, Oman, Morocco and Algeria too - but then my blog becomes a full time occupation. Or I could have talked about Iran - but who talks about Iran these days?