Imperial Anxieties

An act of self-immolation in central Tunisia would normally matter very little to the intelligence and diplomatic corps in Washington, D.C. But Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide before the Town Hall in Sidi Bouzid had an electric effect. It galvanised the people of Tunisia against their suave and ruthless leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been praised by the governments of France and the United States, by the International Monetary Fund and by the bond markets. Only last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report picked Tunisia as the leading country for investment in Africa. Neoliberal policies pleased everyone but the Tunisian working people, who took Bouazizi’s sacrifice as the spark to rise up and send Ben Ali into his Saudi exile.

The immediate reaction in Washington was that this was a containable problem and that the small protests that broke out in support of Tunisians across the Arab world would not have any impact in their home countries. This was a premature judgment. Long-standing grievances among Egyptians pushed them on to the streets, most famously into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It took them two weeks to pressure Hosni Mubarak to release the reins of government and go to his seaside villa in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Mubarak did not leave easily. He was given a lease of life from the Saudi promises of financial support and from the arrival of the U.S. envoy, Frank Wisner Jr. Mubarak and Wisner are old friends. When the latter was U.S. Ambassador to Egypt between 1986 and 1991, Wisner coaxed his friend to provide diplomatic support for the U.S.-led Gulf War against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. During Wisner’s tenure, Mubarak cemented Egypt’s allegiance to the U.S. and to the neoliberal path of economic development. After Wisner left Cairo, he remained a defender of Mubarak. In the tense aftermath of the contested 2005 election, Wisner praised his friend’s re-election. When human rights organisations and electoral officials complained of voter intimidation, Wisner said, “There were no instances of repression; there wasn’t heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation.” A few days after his visit to a beleaguered Mubarak in January 2011, Wisner told a Munich conference that his friend needed to remain in power for the sake of stability and his own legacy. It was an obscene affront to the people in Tahrir Square.

American policy in the Arab world is built on three pillars. The first is its reliance upon the region for oil, which must be allowed to flow freely into the car culture of Europe and the U.S. The second pillar is that its allies in the Arab world (such as Ben Ali, Muammar Qaddafi, Mubarak and the Saudis) must stand firm with the U.S. in its war on terror. Mubarak’s security chief, Omar Suleiman, had opened his jails to the “ghost prisoners” of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Qaddafi had closely collaborated with U.S. intelligence services and with Suleiman in the transit and torture of suspected Al Qaeda members (such as Sheikh al-Libi). The third, of course, is that the Arab allies had to tether their own populations’ more radical ambitions vis-a-vis Israel. Egypt accepted a U.S. annual bribe of $1.3 billion in order to honour its peace agreement with Israel, and this has allowed Israel to conduct its asymmetrical warfare against the Palestinians and the Lebanese. The maintenance of these three pillars is a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world.

Wisner’s visit was not idiosyncratic. It was to put some stick about in the Arab world’s most important capital, Cairo. If Mubarak had to go, then Mubarak’s regime had to remain in place and the public outcry had to be silenced slowly. The Egyptian military, well funded by the U.S. since 1979, came in to do the work.

However, the military might not be as pliable as it seems. Which is why the State Department’s Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns and the National Security Council’s Senior Director David Lipton hastily travelled to Cairo. They needed to shore up people such as Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s Higher Military Council. When the Tahrir Square protests began, Mubarak sent Tantawi to Washington to seek support for his regime and for anti-riot equipment. Tantawi is an old warhorse of the Mubarak regime.


Protests in Bahrain sent a shiver through the Washington establishment for two reasons. First, the archipelago on the eastern flank of the Arabian peninsula is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. It is just a few miles off the coast of Iran and is able to fully support the U.S. adventures in Iraq. If the monarchy in Bahrain falls, there is every indication that a civilian government led by al-Wifaq National Islamic Society will ask the fleet to depart. An economically strapped Dubai might welcome a base, but that would mar its desire to be a Global City. The velvet glove of commerce likes to distance itself from the iron fist of military force. Secondly, if the ruling family in Bahrain is toppled it might embolden protests in the other emirates and, then, certainly, in the lead emirate, Saudi Arabia. The domino of republicanism had been throttled in the 1950s (as Nasserism) and it had to be crushed once more. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen went on a tour of the capitals of the emirates, declaring their unconditional support. The U.S. stands for “universal human rights”, Feltman told the emirs, but of course since “each country is unique” these rights would emerge in their own way. Mullen was at hand to “reassure, discuss and understand what’s going on”. The key word here is “reassure”.

With Libya, the tenor is different. Qaddafi has been a loyal soldier in the U.S.-led war on terror. He has also, over the past 20 years, brought his country in line with the neoliberal policies that wrought havoc a decade earlier in South America and the rest of Africa. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya began to take their orders from IMF manuals in the late 1990s, and the current rebellions are as much anti-IMF riots as they are pro-democracy demonstrations. In early February 2011, the IMF said of Libya that it had followed its “ambitious reform agenda”, and the Fund encouraged Libya’s “strong macroeconomic performance and the progress on enhancing the role of the private sector”. The pain of these policies pushed the needle of distress beyond the bearable.


What distinguishes Qaddafi from the emirs is that he is erratic and has a difficult history. An anti-imperialist Colonel in 1969, Qaddafi often returns to the rhetoric of his youth, but rarely the policies. It confuses people around the world. They think of him as the revolutionary Qaddafi, when in fact that is a posture that has long worn thin. Since 9/11, Qaddafi has been a loyal servant in the Global War on Terror and has been muscular in his propagation of the paranoia about the growth of Al Qaeda in the Sahel region of Africa. Any dissenter is tagged with the label of Salafi. But his allegiance to the Bush world view is not reliable. In August 2010, in Europe, Qaddafi said the continent’s future was in Islam. At a Group of Eight (G8) dinner, he, however, changed places and sat near Silvio Berlusconi and Barack Obama. Qaddafi’s radical past and erratic present have earned him few friends in Washington, even though he himself has been an unswerving ally of its policies over the past decade.

When the Bahraini emirs authorised their security forces to open fire in Manama, the U.S. said that force must not be used. It was the polite language of diplomacy. With Libya, the tone is harsher. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman wanted the North Atlantic Treaty Organisationn (NATO) and the U.S. to create a “no-fly zone” and the United Kingdom sent warships off Libya’s coastline. The Wall Street Journal editorial noted that their government should “tell the Libyan armed forces that the West will bomb their airfields if they continue to slaughter their people. Arming the demonstrators also cannot be ruled out.”

This kind of language is dangerous. It will only embolden Qaddafi to crack down on the protesters with more force, returning him to his “radical” roots fed by his paranoid idea that any protest against him is conducted by Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (or associated Islamist groups).

The slow U.S. support for the uprising in Egypt, the cautious tone with Bahrain and Yemen, and the strident language against Libya are of a piece: the U.S. is not driven by the popular upsurge but by its desire to control the events in north Africa and the Gulf to accord with its three pillars. Cracks in the consensus come here and there. Representative Adam Smith (Democrat from Washington) admitted to reporters: “The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who is running the place, then we are friends with the country’ are dead and gone.” This is a remarkable disclosure, and one that is rarely heard openly in Washington. It was commonplace in the 1980s, when the then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Jeanne Kirkpatrick, distinguished between “traditional autocrats” (the emirs, for instance) and the “revolutionary autocrats” (she had in mind the Communist states). Even Smith’s cautionary note is quickly suborned to the logic of the three pillars. It is not enough to listen to the people of north Africa and the Gulf, to learn from them about their grievances and their desires. Far more important is to yoke them directly to the pillars of U.S. imperial interests, without the indirect filter of the autocrats. “We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us,” Smith said. “What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations.”

Over the past decade, the countries of South America walked through the exit from the theatre of U.S. hegemony. Galvanised by events in Venezuela and Bolivia as well as Argentina and Brazil, these countries are no longer in the reliable orbit of U.S. policy. The Arab people seem now in search of just this exit. The struggle is on to see if they will be able to find it. The U.S. and the remainder of its allies (in the emirates mainly) want to define these revolts in their image, with Donald Rumsfeld giving George W. Bush the credit (this is his freedom agenda, apparently) and Obama’s cronies saying that all this is a result of his speech in Cairo. But these are feints. In Cairo, Obama said, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” During the Tahrir Square standoff, protesters chanted, “We have extended our hand, why have you clenched your fist?”

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:

A version of this piece originally ran in Frontline.




Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).