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Fissures in the Arab Revolts

There will be blood. No revolution comes in a straight line. Counter-revolution runs its steady course from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia through Egypt and into Libya. In Qatif, the Saudi National Guard opened fire on a protest, a phenomenon which has become commonplace in Bahrain. Inside Egypt, rumors fly that it is the security services that orchestrated the attacks on Copts and women (at a march on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day). Libya is in the throes of an asymmetrical civil war, with Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels running a bloody standoff somewhere near the meridian that divides the country into its eastern and western halves. Jubilation at the hasty departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak settle into a time-sequence that is less exhilarating, but nonetheless impressive. It appears as if the people are not to be content by the first flush of victory. What is wanted is more, and this is where the counter-revolution comes in.


At one end of the Arab Revolt is Libya, where the guns are not silent, and threats of military intervention confound discussions in Brussels. The itch to invade mirrors the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003, but with the accents reversed: the French and the English are eager to thrust themselves, while the Americans and the Germans hesitate. NATO warships sail closer to the Libyan coast, and talk of “no-fly zones” intensifies. U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly warns that any military confrontation would be seen as a declaration of war. An exhausted U. S. military machine is not capable of yet another war. And besides, the political outcomes of intervention in Libya are unclear.

Qaddafi’s hardened armies and the rebels, led as they are by ex-ministers of Qaddafi’s regime (such as Mustafa Abdul Jalil), continue to battle along the Mediterranean road, between Surt and Ras Lanuf. One day the rebels advance, and the next Qaddafi’s forces. In his dreams, Qaddafi saves nations. Awake, he razes cities. That has been the fate of some of these cities on the edge of the Gulf of Sidra. The “oil dole” and clan favoritism has enabled Qaddafi to secure support in the western part of Libya. The east is largely in the hands of the rebels. With a weak military capacity, the rebels nonetheless have Benghazi in hand and the more urbane set within Qaddafi’s troupe are loath to assume that it can be taken back militarily. It would probably be mete for the National Libyan Council (the government of the east) to declare themselves as the authentic government of Libya and wait. As oil revenue dwindle to the west and if an arms embargo holds, pressure on Qaddafi from below might set the western part of Libya aflame. The working class of Tripoli is restive. Their neighborhoods, such as Feshloon and Tejura, are on permanent lock-down. Martyrs lie on autopsy tables at Tripoli Central Hospital. The workers are not pusillanimous; they are waiting for their moment. Military intervention from NATO will only strengthen Qaddafi’s hand, allowing him to don the robes of the revolutionary against imperialist attack. The workers are also patriots. They might lose their resolve against Qaddafi if they see French and English speaking troops conducting Iraq War style raids into their homes.

Qaddafi continues to insist that the NLC is the mask of al-Qaeda. The Muslim Brotherhood has certainly a long lineage in the eastern part of Libya, bordering as it does Egypt, the home of the Brotherhood. Sections of the Brotherhood morphed into much more hardened fighters after their sojourn as part of the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistani war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah al-Muqatilah fi-Libya), and returned to eastern Libya to take on Qaddafi. His forces cracked down with force, largely against the main figures of the Group, but also against Salafis who were not radical (such as Muhammad al-Bashti, brutally tortured to death in 1981). The Group tried to maintain its strength, and it did benefit from the Algerian Islamist uprising. A crippling blow came in October 1997, when the Libyan forces killed the Group’s most important commander, Salah Fathi bin Salman (who was known as Abu Abd al-Rahman Hattab). Qaddafi’s early support for the U. S. led “War on Terror” earned him quick dividends. The Group’s remaining intellectual leaders were swept up in 2004, Abu Munder al-Saidi in Hong Kong and Abdullah Sadeq in Thailand: they went into the black hole of Libya’s prison system. What could have been the rump of an Islamist uprising had been fully destroyed. What is now in command in eastern Libya is not al-Qaeda aspirants, but regional forces who have long-standing grievances against Tripoli. The counter-revolution prefers to see them as Islamists, and hopes to drive the stake of fear into the heart of nearby Europe.


With the media concentrating on Libya, focus has shifted from the Sultans of Arabia and their crackdown. Money is the oil that lubricates their counter-revolution. The Saudi royal family hastened to provide transfer payments that total $37 billion. The Gulf Cooperation Council has decided to turn over $20 billion to the beleaguered monarchies of Bahrain and Oman. Muscat and Manama have been equally overrun by dissent. Recycled cabinets are not enough for this popular upsurge, and the bullets fired into the crowd have failed to have the required pedagogical effect. The people will not stop their obligation to democracy.

If Qaddafi’s counter-revolution takes refuge in fantasies of al-Qaeda on Europe’s doorstop, the emirs stoke the fires of the Shia Revival. The Baharnah, the indigenous Shia of Bahrain, for instance, have a political party, the al-Wifaq, that certainly speaks for the Shia working class and middle class who feel a great sense of alienation from Bahrain’s institutions. However, this alienation was not always so. In other words, it is not a sectarian alienation whose roots might be found in the 8th century. Rather, the Shia distress in Bahrain has modern roots, even if these are refracted through older lineages. It is an alienation from oil more than a theological dispute.

Bahrain’s oil was discovered in 1932, and by 1934 it was the first country to export its oil to Europe. A British protectorate against the Ottoman Empire, Bahrain provided oil and protection for the sea lanes from powers that sought to rival British dominion over the Indian Ocean. In December 1934, a group of educated Bahrainis drafted a petition to their titular ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (who answered to Sir Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, who fashioned himself as Belgrave of Bahrain). No real reforms were forthcoming, and so in 1938, Shia and Sunni leaders (educated merchants and intellectuals) joined with the oil workers (who went on strike) to call for an elected legislature and the other trappings of democracy (including legal trade unions). They were crushed. Their leaders were sent to India. A second revolt, this time helped along by Nasserism, between 1954 and 1956 was equally beaten back (its leaders were sent to the cell in St. Helena that once housed Napoleon). There was little sectarian in these movements from below. They wanted a better share of the oil profits, and respect.

Independence from Britain in 1971 was greeted by a new struggle for constitutionalism. The al-Khalifa ruler went to visit the leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Mohsin al-Hakim in his base in Najaf (Iraq), to urge him to moderate the Shia demands. It was in the interest of the al-Khalifas to color the demands from below as sectarian. A toothless constitutionalism was set up. Frustration with the pace of reform was heightened after the Iranian Revolution, and the older (Akhbari Shia) traditions found themselves marginalized by the more aggressive political Shi’ism that emanated from Qom (Iran). Sheikh Ali Salman, the current head of the al-Wafiq party, comes from this latter tradition, schooled in King Saud University (chemistry) and then in the famous al-Hawzah al-Arabiyyah in Qom (he was there during the first Gulf War). A renewed constitutional attempt in the early 1990s was once more crushed (and Ali Salman had to leave Bahrain). It set the stage for the King’s new constitution of 2002 that made the King truly sovereign and the various bodies purely advisory. The Shia leader of the time, Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamal said of it, “this is not the type of parliament we had demanded.” Al-Jamal died in 2006, leaving the field to Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim and his protégé, Ali Salman.

Whatever their temperament, the Wafiq Party led by Ali Salman is not in a position to create the vilayat-e faqih, the guardianship of the clerics. In collaboration with six other parties, it has recently made a reasonable demand, that the current government resign and that a new transition government “whose hands have not been stained with the blood of the martyrs” help “pave the way for the transition to real reforms.” They point to housing and income, to corruption and monarchical excess as their spurs. Also here is the talk of discrimination, and the “exclusion of competent national talent.”

About half of the population of Bahrain comes from South Asia: their needs are not on the table for this revolution. This is a pity. It shows the limits of their demands. The distressed migrants from Egypt and South Asia fleeing from Libya and stranded in Tunisia should give us a sense of the social ecology of the oil industry. These unregistered people produce the world’s wealth but are themselves utterly disposable in a time of crisis (only the stalwart agencies of the UN are at hand, and their miserable resources can only do so much). It is unclear to me why the new revolutionary forces in Egypt have not insisted that the border between Libya and Egypt be opened up to welcome their co-nationals homes.

The counter-revolution counts on sectarianism to tear apart the Arabian resistance. During Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 and the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq, the establishment Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia went on an anti-Shia rampage. Clerics such as Safar al-Hawali and Nasir al-‘Umar preached exclusively through an anti-Shia lens. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak produced a fatwa in December 2006 that declared the Shia to be takfir, enemies of the Sunnis. In the last months of 2006, Toby Jones notes, the security forces “arrested Shi’is from Qatif and the surrounding areas, reportedly for supporting Hezbollah.” Ten years before, in Bahrain, the minister for justice and Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Abd Allah bin Khalid al-Khalifa, threatened “some Islamic movements” for “taking an extremist path,” and so allowed his security agencies to take the violent path against them, mainly Shia. It was a convenient way to pollute the waters of grievance.

In 1845, a British official watched unrest take hold in Bahrain. He wrote, “Numbers of the principal and most wealthy inhabitants, to avoid the effects of increased anarchy and confusion, fled upon the commencement of actual hostilities to Koweit on the Arabian and to Lingah and other places on the Persian Coast, where they have since temporarily located themselves, in order to watch the course of events, and return with the first signs of peace and established government, and consequent security to life and property.” The counter-revolution in 2011, similarly, watches and waits for its agents to do its work for it. It too wants to preserve life and property, but not those of the masses; only its own life and its own property. It counts on its allies in the North to bring the cavalry if things turn dire. Intervention might yet come in Libya, but it has already come to the Arabian Peninsula. Last year, the U. S. government inked a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The kit includes UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters, very useful in counter-insurgency. When the Peninsula’s political temperature rises, those helicopters will be the “first signs of peace and established government” in the region.

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:




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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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