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Of Autocrats and Uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa

“Al-Shebab,” said my student Jerry early in the fall 2010 semester. “We’re calling our small group al-Shebab. It means ‘The Youth.’” From his name alone, I wouldn’t have guessed his background, but he was proud of his family’s Egyptian roots and had convinced his classmates to give their group an Arabic name.

As usually happens when the semester ends and my dozens of students scatter, Jerry and I lost touch. The following April, however, we ran into each other at a rally organized by students at my university to support the Arab Spring. Like many others around the world, I’d watched transfixed as brave unarmed civilians faced down riot police on the bridges leading to Cairo’s Tahrir Square. I’d celebrated on February 11, 2011, when the corrupt and authoritarian Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned as the military took control of that country.

Jerry’s eyes sparkled when he saw me. “Isn’t it amazing?” he shouted. Yes, it was amazing… until it wasn’t.

This spring, eight years later, there has been a new set of popular uprisings in northern Africa, from Algeria to Morocco, to Sudan. Let’s hope they have more lasting success than Egypt’s Arab Spring.

It’s All About the Military

The victory over Hosni Mubarak was indeed amazing, perhaps too amazing to last, since the real arbiter of events in Egypt was then, and continues to be, its military. In the parliamentary elections of November 2011, the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood took almost half that body’s seats. In June 2012, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became the country’s first elected president, winning a runoff race with just under 52% of the vote.

That August, Morsi made the move that would eventually doom him, replacing his defense minister with Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He also quickly turned in an increasingly autocratic direction, issuing decrees granting himself more power and proposing a new constitution that would do the same (which was approved by more than 60% of the voters in a low-turnout referendum).

By June 2013, many Egyptians were frustrated both with Morsi’s increasingly authoritarian rule and the stagnation of the economy. Once again, millions of people gathered in Cairo, this time to call for his removal, at which point the military pushed him out, installing the head of the constitutional court, Adly Mansour, as interim president. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded with violent attacks, burning police stations and government buildings. The government repression that followed was fierce enough that, in October 2013, the Obama administration suspended the further transfer of U.S. military equipment to Egypt. Eventually, new elections were held and, in May 2014, Morsi’s Defense Minister, el-Sisi, won the presidency with a suspicious 96.9% of the vote. By then, the Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed and would soon be declared a terrorist organization.

In April of this year, el-Sisi, running essentially unopposed, was reelected. Never one to slight an authoritarian ruler, President Trump immediately called to congratulate him and then invited him to the White House to discuss“robust military, economic, and counterterrorism cooperation” between the two countries. A few weeks later, in a “snap referendum,” the Egyptian constitution was altered to allow el-Sisi to retain the presidency until at least 2030 — essentially, that is, for life. That move also cemented the country’s military, long its dominant economic power, as its sole political power, too.

Trump Goes A-Wooing in the Middle East and North Africa

From Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the American president who “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has rarely met an autocrat he didn’t take to (though his bromance with Kim may finally be souring). So, it’s no surprise that el-Sisi’s trip to Washington was a success and his country is now on course to remain the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel. Ninety-four percent of that aid goes to “peace and security” — in other words, to Egypt’s military and police.

Trump is, however, distinctly polyamorous when it comes to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) autocratic types, as his long-standing love affair with Israel’s recently reelected prime minister, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, indicates. Given Trump’s own history of racism, Bibi’s embrace of Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State” law undoubtedly only turned up the heat on their relationship. This infamous legislation moves Israel further in the direction of apartheid. It legalizes Jewish-only communities, demotes Arabic from its status as an official language, and states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”

While the world waits less than breathlessly for Jared Kushner’s long-promised Israel-Palestine peace plan, President Trump keeps gift-wrapping pieces of disputed territory and handing them directly to Bibi in his own spontaneous version of an Israel First peace plan. In December 2017 came the announcement of his administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump claimed that “recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would advance the peace process and make a permanent status agreement between the two sides easier.” Maybe he saw this as a move towards peace because it unilaterally took the ultimate status of Jerusalem, one of the pieces in any such plan, off the Israeli-Palestinian playing board.

Next up came the Golan Heights, a slice of territory on Syria’s western border, captured by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War between Israel and Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. In 1981, Israel passed a law annexing the area, an act rejected by the U.N. Security Council, whose resolution stated that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect.” As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States joined that unanimous vote. Nonetheless, this spring, just before a very close Israeli election, President Trump reversed longstanding policy and announced his recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Heights. Happy Birthday, Bibi.

In the days before the election, Netanyahu then doubled down on annexation, proclaiming his intention to make Jewish settlements on the West Bank a permanent part of Israel along with the Golan Heights. In so doing, he’ll be fulfilling Ariel Sharon’s decades-old boast about Israel’s intentions for the Palestinians:

“We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”

Meanwhile, Trump seems to have developed a new crush, this time on a Libyan military figure the New York Times calls a “would-be strongman”: 75-year-old self-styled “Field Marshal” Khalifa Hifter. Based in the eastern part of Libya, where he has been aligned with one of that divided land’s several rival governments, Hifter, a former CIA asset, launched an attack on the capital, Tripoli, on April 5th. Though not successful so far, his assault has already caused hundreds of deaths, with more likely to follow.

A Mediterranean port in the northwestern corner of the country, Tripoli houses Libya’s internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, which doesn’t actually do much governing. Ever since the Obama administration and NATO intervened to topple autocrat Muammar al-Gaddafi, power in Libya has been divided among multiple militias, including Hifter’s military, and Islamist groups like ISIS.

When the field marshal attacked Tripoli, the initial Trump administration response was swift and negative. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement indicating the opposition of “the administration at the highest levels,” announcing that “we oppose the military offensive.” He urged Hifter to immediately “halt… these military operations.” His reaction accorded with that of “most Western governments and the United Nations,” which, according to the New York Times, “have also condemned the attack and demanded a retreat.”

Hours later, however, President Trump personally called Hifter (as National Security Advisor John Bolton had done earlier) and essentially encouraged him to keep up his assault on Tripoli. According to a White House statement:

“The President recognized Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

Why is Donald J. Trump supporting a Libyan warlord, even as his move to take Tripoli seems to be failing? Perhaps because Hifter also has the support of Trump’s other MENA buddies, Egypt’s el-Sisi, the Saudi Arabian government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman which only recently executed 37 people (36 beheaded and one crucified), including several who confessed under torture and were minors at the time of their alleged crimes — and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates. Those Arab powers are betting that Hifter can suppress any Libyan version of the Muslim Brotherhood. And there’s one more autocrat backing Hifter, Trump’s old flame Vladimir Putin. Indeed, for once Russia and the United States find themselves on the same side in the U.N. Security Council, where they joined to block a resolution demanding a ceasefire and condemning Hifter’s military moves. Meanwhile, in a gesture of love for the Saudis, Trump vetoed a resolution passed with rare bipartisan congressional support that would have ended U.S. backing for the Kingdom’s brutal war in Yemen.

For all his love of authoritarians, there is, however, one Middle Eastern nation that hasn’t won Trump’s affections: Iran. In May 2018, he pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), an international accord under which Iran had agreed not to develop nuclear weapons. In return, economic sanctions on that country were eased, while it was allowed to resume selling oil on the international market, and regained access to billions of dollars in frozen assets overseas.

The JCPA’s other signatories included Russia, France, Great Britain, and China, along with Germany and the European Union. None of them followed Trump’s lead. Only recently, his administration has threatened sanctions against any country buying oil from Iran after May 1st, a move mainly affecting China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. This attempt to economically starve Iran into submission comes even as his administration declared that country’s Revolutionary Guards a “ foreign terrorist organization.” As the hardliners in both lands face off, further escalation becomes increasingly, and dangerously, likely.

Spring Stirrings

As we brace for a possible future conflict with Iran (what could possibly go wrong?), it’s sometimes easy for those of us who have spent our lives opposing U.S. military actions to forget that Washington isn’t, in fact, behind every world event. Other peoples have their own struggles and their own agency — on display this spring in two MENA countries that have long suffered under corrupt and authoritarian governments: Algeria and Sudan. (And there appear to be stirrings in Morocco, as well.)

Algeria: Every semester I show the students in my Ethics: War, Torture, and Terrorism class The Battle of Algiers. Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film depicts the first urban uprising against French colonial power by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), brutally suppressed by France’s paratroopers between 1954 and 1957. It contains enough war, torture, and terrorism to fuel a semester’s worth of conversation. Inevitably, students want to know what happened in Algeria after the French were finally driven out in 1962. “That,” I tell them, “is a sad story.”

Indeed it is. After leading Algerians to victory over France, the FLN ruled the country for almost two decades, mostly under military control after a 1965 coup. Following popular uprisings in 1988, a new constitution opened political space for other parties, while reducing the army’s role in government. The most popular of those parties turned out to be the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which was devoted to a fundamentalist version of political Islam. When it appeared clear that the FIS would win both local and national elections, the FLN and the military stepped in to prevent it, resulting in a series of coups and an ongoing civil war.

Eventually, a new FLN leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, came to power in 1999 and never left. Earlier this year, he announced through intermediaries — he has not been seen in public since 2014 — that he would seek a fifth term. Evidently suffering from stomach cancer, he had a stroke in 2013 and has been out of the country much of the time since for medical treatment, most recently in Switzerland.

The latest announcement finally provoked a full-scale popular uprising, led by — and this should sound familiar to readers of this piece — al-shebab, the youth, many of whom had known no other president. (“Youth” is attractive, which is probably why a terror group in Somalia has also taken that name.)  In an oil-rich country where a quarter of those under 30 are out of work, the younger generation is fed up with behind-the-scenes military rule, a sick autocrat, and the pervasive corruption that goes with it all. For weeks this spring, Algerians in their millions poured into the streets, demanding that Bouteflika leave office. On April 2nd, facing this massive, determined, non-violent resistance — and with a push from the military — he resigned. Seventy-seven-year-old Abdelkader Bensalah, like Bouteflika a veteran of the war of independence, has replaced him until new elections in July.

The protesters haven’t, however, let up, arguing that Bouteflika may be gone but the power structure that kept him in office — “le pouvoir” — is still running the government. Perhaps as a sop to the movement, on April 22nd, the police detained five of the country’s most powerful businessmen on accusations of corruption. It remains to be seen whether the strength of this new resistance can be converted into a political version of people’s power for the long term.

Sudan: Meanwhile in Sudan, weeks of similarly massive popular uprisings have dislodged another autocrat, forcing that country’s military to remove President Omar al-Bashir. He is now reportedly in prison, while a search of his home turned up bags containing more than $100 million in cash.

As in Algeria, many of the demonstrators are young and in Sudan a majority of them appear to be women. The most organized among them is a group of doctors, other health workers, and lawyers known as the Sudanese Professionals Association. As in Algeria, the key question is whether this movement will be able to hold out against the power of the military until a genuinely civilian government can be installed.

The original Arab Spring — Tunisia possibly excluded — ended in bloodshed and autocratic or military rule. Still, the youth in parts of the region clearly remain both dissatisfied and hopeful enough to take to the streets to try to bring democracy and clean government to their countries.

An American Spring?

Speaking of aging autocrats, we’ve got one of our own in Washington, D.C. So where are the American millions in the streets? Where is our American Spring? Admittedly, we were there when he first took office, but two years of constant outrage seem to have worn us down or out. As a whirlwind tour of the MENA region suggests, the death and destruction Donald Trump has had a hand in producing extends far beyond our own borders. And we can add to the list of horrors perhaps the greatest one of all: his apparent determination to hasten the collapse of civilization by pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords and doubling down on fossil fuels.

And then there’s the question of our own quaint constitution with its attachment to the rule of law. Now that we have the (redacted) Mueller report, isn’t it time for Americans to stand up for democracy and clean government here at home? I can understand Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to begin impeachment proceedings, given the unlikelihood of a conviction by a Republican Senate. But if we don’t want to end up like so many other countries, replacing one autocrat with another, we have to find a way to hold the one we now have accountable for his high crimes and misdemeanors.

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

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