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Remember the neoconservatives’ plan of “domino effect” following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq? It was supposed to be followed by the toppling of other “unfriendly” heads of “rogue states” such as those ruling Iran and Syria who do not cater to the US-Israeli interests in the Middle East. It was not meant to threaten the “friendly” regimes that rule Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and their cohorts that have been firmly aligned with the United States. Indeed, it was supposed to replace the former type of “noncompliant” regimes with the latter type of “client states” that would go along with the US-Israeli geopolitical designs in the region.
Barely a decade later, however, the political winds in the Middle East are shifting in the opposite direction: it is not the US-designated “rogue states” that are falling but the “moderate American friends” who are crumbling. How do we explain this truly historical twist of fortunes?
A number of important factors that are clearly contributing to the breathtaking social upheavals in the Arab/Muslim world are economic hardship, dictatorial rule and rampant corruption. While these relatively obvious factors are frequently cited as driving forces behind the upheaval, a number of equally important but less evident forces are often left out of this list of contributory influences. These rarely mentioned factors include: aspirations to national sovereignty, frustration with the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people, and outrage by the malicious smear campaign against the Arab/Muslim people’s religious and cultural values. In other words, the Arab/Muslim people are not just angry with government repression, corruption, and economic hardship; they are also angry with their rulers’ subordination to or collusion with imperialism, both US imperialism and the (mini) Israeli imperialism, as well as with the insidious offenses against their religious and cultural heritage.
The overwhelming majority of the Arab/Muslim people who are up in arms against the status quo harbor a strong sense of humiliation by the fact that they are ruled by tyrannical heads of state who subordinate their interests to the economic and geopolitical imperatives of foreign powers. Equally demeaning to this people is the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. The creation of the colonial settler state of Israel through terrorization, ethnic cleansing and eviction of at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, and the continued violence perpetrated daily against this people is viewed by the Arab/Muslim people as a degrading violence against them all.
Corporate media and mainstream political pundits in the United States tend to deny or downgrade the galvanizing role that anti-imperialism/anti-Zionism plays in the uprising. For example, the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently opined (in a February 16, 2011, column): “Egypt has now been awakened by its youth in a unique way – not to fight Israel, or America, but in a quest for personal empowerment, dignity and freedom.” Obviously, Mr. Friedman must have a very narrow and unusual definition of dignity and freedom—as if such universally-cherished values are unrelated to foreign domination of one’s government or country.
The fact remains, however, that aspirations to national sovereignty and sentiments of anti-imperialism play important roles in the uprising. They explain why the unrest cuts across a wide swath of society. Not only the economically hard-pressed poor and working classes but also the relatively well-off middle classes are joining the youth in the streets. Professional strata such as lawyers, doctors and teachers, as well as people from the arts and intellectual life are joining too.
Just as the thrust of the Palestinian Intifada (uprising) is to end the Zionist occupation of their land, so does the more widespread unrest in the Arab/Muslim world represent a broader intifada designed to end the imperialist domination of their governments. Indications of such sentiments were reflected in many views and slogans in Cairo’s Liberation Square, which were directed not only at Mubarak’s regime but also at the United States and Israel:
“We are not with America or any other government. We are able to help ourselves. . . . We are against the US interfering in Egypt’s establishment of a democratic government. We are against any foreign interference. . . . We are Egyptians and we can decide our fate on our own. . . . “I don’t think that Israel is a state. I don’t believe in it. Israel is just an occupation. I personally, as an Egyptian, do not acknowledge the existence of Israel. Any Arab government that deals with Israel or works under Israel I do not acknowledge it either” (source).
Such keen aspirations to independence from foreign influences led Graeme Bannerman, the former Middle East analyst on the US State Department Policy Planning Staff, to acknowledge (on National Public Radio, January 27, 2011) that “Popular opinion in the Middle East runs so against American policies that any change in any government in the Middle East that becomes more popular will have an anti-American and certainly less friendly direction towards the US which will be a serious political problem for us.”
An indication of how passionately the Arab street detests their leader’s catering to the US-Israeli interests, or how they resent the brutal treatment of Palestinians, is reflected in the fact that, according to a number of opinion polls, they have consistently expressed more respect for the Iranian leaders, who are neither Arab nor Sunni, than their Arab leaders—because, contrary to most Arab leaders, the Iranian leaders have (since the 1979 revolution) firmly stood their ground vis-à-vis the egotistical imperialist policies in the region.
Egyptian regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat (before him) were especially despised for their subservience to the United States and Israel. From the time of its creation in 1948 until 1979 no Arab country recognized Israel as a legitimate state. In 1979, however, Egypt (under President Sadat) broke ranks with the rest of the Arab/Muslim world when he signed a “peace agreement” with Israel, which came to be known as the Camp David accord.
Although the accord was officially between Egypt and Israel, the United States was a key broker and the main partner. The US agreed to supply Egypt with substantial financial and military aid, amounting to nearly $2 billion a year, in return for its recognition of Israel and its compliance with the US-Israeli geopolitical and economic imperatives in the region. As Alison Weir, writer/reporter and the executive director of “If Americans Knew,” recently put it, by thus recognizing and normalizing its relation with Israel, “Egypt led the way for other nations to ‘normalize’ relations with the abnormal situation in Palestine.”
Since then Egypt has been a de facto ally of Israel, as well as bedrock of economic and geopolitical interests of the United States in the Middle East. It has opened its air, water and ground spaces to US armed forces. It has worked to coax or coerce governments and political forces in the region to comply with the US-Israeli interests. And it has served as a counter-balancing force against countries like Iran that defy the imperialist plans of the United States and Israeli in the region. As a “peace partner” with Israel, Egypt has also been complicit in Israel’s colonial policies of vicious oppression of the Palestinian people.
Although under the US-Israeli influence, Anwar Sadat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Prime Minister Begin of Israel), for the Camp David “peace” accord, proponents of Egypt’s national sovereignty and defenders of the rights of the Palestinian people considered the accord as treason and capitulation to Zionist expansionism and US imperialism.
The outrage that the Camp David betrayal generated in Egypt and the broader Arab/Muslim world was epitomized by the tragic assassination of Anwar Sadat, presumably for having signed the giveaway “peace” accord with Israel. The following is one of many accounts that attribute Sadat’s assassination to the “peace” agreement:
“In the months leading up to his assassination, he was hugely unpopular in the Middle East for making peace with Israel, which was considered a ‘traitorous’ move against the Palestinians. There were several criticisms and death threats made against him and his family.
“It was no surprise to many that he was assassinated, but the circumstances under which he was assassinated are still peculiar. Many reports have claimed that Egyptian Security forces knew well in advance that an attempt on Sadat’s life would be made, but did little to stop it. Some even claimed that Egyptian Security forces helped train the would-be assassins. Some see this as a plausible scenario, since the assassins were able to bypass several layers of checks and inspections prior to the military parade in Cairo” (source).
While President Reagan lamented Sadat’s death when he bemoaned: "America has lost a great friend, the world has lost a great statesman, and mankind has lost a champion of peace," Nabil Ramlawi, a Palestinian official at the time, stated: "We were expecting this end of President Sadat because we are sure he was against the interests of his people, the Arab nations and the Palestinian people" (source).
An often latent goal of the current uprising in the Middle East/North Africa is to end the suffering of the Palestinian people by restoring their geopolitical rights within the internationally agreed upon borders. In subtle or submerged ways, the atrocious injustice perpetrated against Palestinians seems to be the “mother” of all the Arab/Muslim grievances. Viewed in this light, the uprising in the Arab/Muslim world represents an expanded intifada beyond Palestine. Without a fair and just resolution of the plight of the Palestinian people, the political turbulence in the region is bound to continue, with potentially cataclysmic consequences.
Once source of hope in the face of this gloomy picture is that more of the Jewish people would come to the realization that the expansionist project of radical Zionism is untenable and, therefore, join many other Jewish individuals and organizations (such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians) that have already come to such an understanding, and are working toward a just and peaceful coexistence with their historical cousins in the region.
Radical Zionism pins its hope for the success of its project on the support from imperialist powers. As has been pointed out by the critics of Zionism, many of whom Jewish, this is a very dangerous expectation, or hope, since the support from imperial powers, which is ultimately based on their own nefarious geopolitical calculations and economic interests, can precipitously come to an end, or drastically withdrawn, as the geopolitical equations in the region change. As the renowned Jewish thinker Uri Avnery recently put it:
“Our future is not with Europe or America. Our future is in this region. . . . It’s not just our policies that must change, but our basic outlook, our geographical orientation. We must understand that we are not a bridgehead from somewhere distant, but a part of a region that is now – at long last – joining the human march toward freedom.”
To sum up, the long pent-up grievances of the Arab/Muslim world are exploding not just in the faces of local dictators such as Mubarak of Egypt or Ben Ali of Tunisia but, perhaps more importantly, against their neocolonial/imperial patrons abroad. As the astute foreign policy analyst Jason Ditz recently pointed out, “the resentment is spreading beyond Mubarak and his immediate underlings, and toward the United States and Israel.” This means that the uprising represents something bigger than the buzzwords of abstract, decontextualized personal freedoms, or the money-driven, carefully-scripted bogus elections – called democracy. It represents a growing culture of resistance to neocolonialism that started with the great Iranian revolution of 1979.
ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH, author of The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007), teaches economics at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.