A Democratic Middle East is Intolerable for Saudi Arabia

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.

Ziabari: What’s your estimation of the recent developments in the region?

Prashad: A long process of preparation has been afoot in the Middle East and North Africa,  The spur for the uprising was in last year’s Russian wheat harvest, which was historically poor. That resulted in the high grain prices worldwide, and the high bread prices. This meant that Mubarak, for instance, sensed too late that the bread issue was going to galvanize the prepared forces into a mass struggle ? he increased the subsidy. It helped that in Tunisia the perfect candidate became the match that set afire the desert lands: Mohammed Bouazizi was educated and under-employed, the main bread-winner for his family, denied dignity by a State that had increasingly become little other than a security apparatus to protect the siphoning of wealth to the narrow elite. When the police officer told him he could not park his hand-cart where he wished, it was the last straw for Bouazizi, whose immolation set in motion events that waited for just such an act.

The Tunisia-Egypt wave swept into the Arabian Peninsula. That’s where events ran into some trouble. Saudi Arabia was prepared to go to any length to vanquish the protests in Bahrain, which it has done with armed force against the protestors and continued arrest and detention of the leadership. In Yemen, matters are simplified: there is no need to do a deal to send in troops. The current president is clever: he agrees to depart but knows that he has at least two cards in his back pocket: (1) that the Saudis do not want instability in the peninsula; (2) that the U.S. is petrified of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, located largely in Yemen. Yemen will remain on the front pages of the newspapers because of the courage of the Yemeni people, but there will be no real pressure for regime change there.

What’s your analysis of the situation in Libya?

The eastern cities of Benghazi and Darnah have a long-standing association with various Islamist tendencies, and their most hardened sections form part of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Many of them found their way to Iraq, where they fought in the insurgency against the U.S. In the 1990s, Qaddafi went after the LIFG in Benghazi and Darnah, using helicopter gunships to fire at their protests. The funeral of LIFG’s emir, Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, in Ajdabiya was attended by thousands in May 2009. It is a reflection of the social depth of Islamism. On February 17, 2006, section of this social section protested in Benghazi as part of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Qaddafi regime shot at them, and killed eleven. Out of this event came the third strand of the Libyan resistance, the February 17 movement, a human rights section that had as its main face people like the young lawyer Fathi Terbil.

Qaddafi’s forces arrested Terbil on February 15, 2011, knowing full well that the protests called for two days later would gather the full weight of the resistance to his increasingly autocratic regime. The wave from Tunisia and Egypt had to break in Libya, and it would of course begin in Benghazi. Qaddafi acted as he would, which is to say, he arrested the main leadership and threatened protests in the hills of the west (in Zintan and Misurata) and in the cities of the east (Benghazi mainly).


It was at this point that the Libyan Revolution began to be hijacked by forces close to the Atlantic powers, whose own interest in Libya is governed by oil Libya, which sits in the center of North Africa, with Egypt on one border and Tunisia on the other, provided the perfect space to launch the Arab Winter. It is not about oil alone, because Qaddafi had been quite willing, even eager, to transact oil to Europe through major Atlantic corporations. The oil is certainly an important matter here, but it is not decisive. What was central was the political issue: to maintain the traditional order of things in the Arab world, with the main pillars of stability intact: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the tentacles of the United States and Europe in the major capitals of the oil lands. No revision of that order was permitted. Libya opened the door to the counter-revolution.

The leadership in Benghazi had already begun to change. A new Transitional government was set up by elites from Tripoli who had defected to the rebellion (Mustafa Abdul Jalil ? a former Justice minister, Ali Suleiman Aujali ? former Libyan Ambassador to the US, Mahmud Jibril ? former privatization minister, General Abdul Fatah Younis) and those who had returned from exile (such as Colonel Khalifa Hifter, who lived not five miles from the CIA headquarters after his aborted coup attempt in the 1980s). They opened their council on February 27, the day after Resolution 1970. Their first order of business was to demand a stronger UN resolution, with active military support for their rebellion.

The Gulf Coordinating Council, Saudi Arabia’s NATO, called for a no-fly zone on March 8. That was the opening salvo. The GCC states controlled a large bloc in the Arab League. On March 12, the Arab League, with pressure from Saudi Arabia, voted for the no-fly zone. The deal was simple: the League, pushed by the GCC, would support the Atlantic plans for Libya, if the GCC was allowed to smash the rebellion in Bahrain. On March 14, GCC troops crossed the causeway that separates Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to smash the Bahraini rebellion. There was no criticism from the Atlantic powers, and the media largely ignored the crackdown. Three days later, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973. South Africa was strong-armed to support it, but Germany, Brazil, Russia, India and China abstained. That was as good as a negative vote. They worried that this was an abyss.

The air war began, with French strikes first. The Arab League hastily said that it did not know that a no-fly zone would result in such strikes. That was na?ve, or disingenuous. What the “humanitarian intervention” did was to make dialogue impossible. The African Union’s team could not go to Tripoli. The Benghazi rebels now felt that they would surely score a military victory against Qaddafi, who felt that he had nothing to lose (particularly after the ICC indictment). The African Union team that eventually traveled to Tripoli and Benghazi returned empty-handed.

UN Resolution 1973 opens the door to arms delivery. US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice inserted a clause that allows for the member states to offer “all necessary measures, notwithstanding Resolution 1970,” which means that despite the arms embargo from February, the US and NATO can offer arms and logistical support to the rebels. All this makes the rebellion beholden to NATO and the Atlantic states; it has very little independence for maneuver. No wonder that Jibril was in Paris, London and Washington, promising a neo-liberal governance strategy for the new Libya.

The Atlantic powers are following the Serbian model: create a rump government (the Benghazi-based Transitional Council standing in for 1990 declaration of Kosovo by its “parliament”), conduct a sustained bombing campaign (the aerial bombardment of Tripoli standing in for the bombardment of Serbia, and more pointedly by the late 1990s, Belgrade), and push the ICC to indict the leader (with Qaddafi a stand in for Milosevic). To take the model to its limit, this means that Libya, likely, will break up as Yugoslavia did. Warfare of the NATO kind along the Serbian model has only this predictable outcome, as it had in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. Mousa Khousa, now in exile, worries that Libya will be a “giant Somalia.”

What’s your idea about the situation in Bahrain?

VP: The al-Khalifa dynasty traces its rule to 1783. That’s much longer than the House of Saud, founded in 1932. But the House of Saud has two important advantages. It is the home of the holy sites, and it is the largest reservoir of oil in the world. Bahrain, on the other hand, is a small monarchy, and its oil reserves are slated to run dry during 2011. The al-Khalifa branch is therefore dependent on Riyadh. The Bahraini royals have no freedom of maneuver.

The leading party of the Shi’ites e in Bahrain is the al-Wafeq party, founded in 2001, and led by Ali Salman. It is backed by the clerics of Bahrain, and often takes very peculiar positions (against the hanging of underwear in the University of Bahrain, and for segregated housing between Bahraini nationals and South Asian contract workers). the party commands the loyalty of a very large number of people, a fact admitted by a 2008 U.S. State Department cable (released by Wikileaks). Fear of Iranian influence enables the continuation of the autocracy.

The U.S. poses another problem here. It has a large base in Manama, which houses the U.S. 5th Fleet. That deployment is essential for U.S. war aims in the Middle East, and in the Gulf region ? mainly as a deterrent against Iran through the patrolling of the oil lanes. There is no way that the U.S. or the Saudis would allow al-Khalifa to fall and a party like al-Wafeq to come to power. Such an outcome would strengthen what Washington and Riyadh see as the revisionist bloc (led by Iran).

The opposition’s paper al-Wasat has been silenced (its founder, Karim Fakhrawi was arrested on April 5, and died in custody a week later; its main columnist Haidar al-Naimi was arrested and has not reappeared). The struggle is not going to die down in Bahrain, but given the level of repression and the media blockade on it, it is unlikely that the protests are going to have any impact on the entrenched al-Khalifa family.

What will be the impacts of Egyptian revolution on the future of Israel-Egypt relations?

VP: The direction of the Egyptian revolution is unclear. The people are not satisfied with the ouster of Mubarak. They want to upend the regime. This means that they will not be willing to allow the military to continue its rule; the elections will certainly be held in October or November. It is likely that the most organized party might have a chance at it, which is to say that the Muslim Brotherhood might win the presidential election (its candidate is probably Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail). Or else, if the secular sections field a common candidate, and if they are backed by the elites, this person (such as Mohamed ElBaradei) might win out. ElBaradei is an interesting person, whose own education was in the Non-Aligned foreign policy of his teacher Ismail Fahmi. Fahmi resigned from Anwar Sadat’s cabinet when Sadat went to Camp David to sign the Accords. This is the atmosphere that produced ElBaradei, who remained a strong supporter of international law and the rights of all nations (a pillar of Non-Alignment) as Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, what I am saying is that both the Brotherhood and the most credible secular candidate are not going to back the old ways. They are going to craft a new agenda for Egypt’s relationship with Israel. That is certain.

Right after the February 2011 revolution, when Mubarak had been ousted, the new government allowed two Iranian ships, one a frigate, to go through the Suez Canal. This was the first time an Iranian warship had used the canal since 1979. It is a significant sign. It is important to keep in mind that the new government, with Tantawi as head, chose a conventional figure as the foreign minister: they picked Nabil el-Araby, who has worked in the Ministry of External Affairs since the 1970s. He was ambassador to India in the 1980s. In this period, el-Araby led the legal team to Camp David (1978) and to the Taba Conference (1985-89) to settle the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace. Nonetheless, right after the February ouster of Mubarak and the entry of el-Araby to office, the old legal advisor sought out Hamas and began to talk about a new strategy for Egyptian-Palestinian relations. One outcome of these talks was the freeing up of the restrictions at the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and Gaza on May 28.

The U.S. has already intervened to protect Israel, but with money not through guns. The Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement is held in place by a $1.3 billion annual bribe paid by the U.S. taxpayers to the Egyptian military. This money not only solicits Egyptian support for a treaty that has no popular appeal, but it also strengthens the one institution in Egypt that requires no extension of its power. But that coin means that the Egyptian military is going to be loath to allow any political party to break the deal. This will mean that a transition is only going to happen if Camp David goes off the table. The only other way forward is for the military to be brought under civilian control, which is unlikely. In the short term, any new civilian government is going to make some concessions (such as opening the Rafah crossing), but it will not be able to sustain a total roll-back on the deal. Sheikh Ismail threatens a complete revocation of the deal, a position that ElBaradei is not going to articulate. Whatever the rhetoric, the outcome is going to be far more prosaic.

Do the Arab world uprisings imply the isolation of Israel and increase the chances of its being dissolved? Reports associated with the CIA imply that Israel cannot survive for longer than 20 years. Do you agree with this prediction?

VP: I do not agree with it at all. For one, Israel is here to stay. It is a country of almost eight million people, with a major backer in the United States and a minor one in Saudi Arabia. It has the right to exist, as any nation has the right to exist. To think otherwise is rhetorical.

Nonetheless, the character of the Israeli state and its security are certainly under threat. If it is to be a Jewish State and yet not make a comprehensive and real deal toward the creation of a Palestinian State, it is fated to be mired in a fatal demographic contradiction: by 1976, in the Koenig Memorandum it was clear that there was going to be an increase in the Arab population (now about 20%) and a flattening or even decrease in the Jewish population, hence the insistence on bringing in the Russian Jewish migrants and so on. The only way to seal off a Jewish State, to those who are so inclined, is to ensure that the Palestinians have their own state. But that is not going to happen unless Israel concedes certain fundamental demands, namely questions of security for the new State and reasonable borders and so on.

The Arab Spring has provoked three new elements to the Palestinian struggle: first, the new political unity between Hamas and Fatah; second, the nonviolent protests on the Israeli-Syrian border; third, the push by the Palestinians to go to the United Nations General Assembly and ask for a formal declaration of statehood. It is to undercut this that President Obama tried to offer a concession, the declaration of a state of Palestine based on 1967 border, with swaps to preserve Israel’s sense of security. Obama wanted to make a few modest concessions to circumvent the Palestinian positive dynamic. It would look appalling in the context of the Arab Spring for the U.S. to have to wield its veto against the Palestinians in the Security Council. If these three new elements (the unity of the political forces, the nonviolent protests, and the move to the UN) continue, it is going to make things very difficult for the Israeli Right and for the U.S. ? they have got used to Hamas’ rockets, which are easy to dismiss and to use. It is much harder to legitimize what Baruch Kimmerling calls the “politicide” of the Palestinians because of peace marches toward the Israeli line of control.

What’s your idea about the destiny of the revolutions in the Middle East?

VP: The Arab Spring is remarkable. It has now taken hold in Morocco, where demonstrations have been taking place each day. Syria as well is wracked by protests. What is impressive is the sheer fortitude of the Arab people, who have decided that enough is enough, that even where they might have a decent standard of living, as in the oil rich countries, such as Bahrain, they want more: dignity and democracy. One cannot underestimate the power of democracy, of people having the right to create their world in a manner that suits them, that allows them to live dignified lives. This is an essential lesson re-awakened by the Arab Spring.

Kourosh Ziabari is a young Iranian journalist, media correspondent and literary author.


Kourosh Ziabari is an independent journalist from Iran.