People Power in the Middle East

By M. Shahid Alam

From his weekly perch at CNN, Fareed Zakaria, speculated last Sunday (or the Sunday before) whether George Bush could take credit for the events that were unfolding in Tunisia, whether this was the late fruit of the neoconservative project to bring ‘democracy’ to the Middle East.

It is quite extraordinary watching Zakaria – a Muslim born and raised in India, and scion of a leading political family – mimic with such facility the language of America’s ruling classes, and show scarce a trace of empathy for the world’s oppressed, despite his propinquity to them by reason of history and geography. He does have a bias for India, but here too he only shows a concern for India’s strategic interests, not the interests of its subjugated classes, minorities and ethnicities. This I offer only as an aside about how easy it is for members of the upper classes in countries like India, Pakistan or Egypt to slip into an American skin whenever that dissimulation offers greater personal advantages.

As a cover for deepening US control over the Middle East – here is the latest civilizing mission for you – the neoconservatives in the Bush administration argued that the Islamic world produces ‘terrorists’ because it lives under autocracies. To solve the ‘terrorist’ problem, therefore, the US would have to bring democracy to the Middle East. This demagoguery only reveals the bankruptcy of America’s political class. It is a shame when the President of the United States and his neoconservative puppet-masters peddle such absurdities without being greeted by squeals of laughter – and shouted down as hypocritical, as farcical.

Which country has been the leading ally and sponsor these past decades of nearly all the despotisms in the Middle East – those of royal pedigree and others seeking to become royalties?

Regardless, the real plan of United States failed miserably. It was dispatched to its grave by a people’s resistance in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet, George Bush and his neoconservative allies can take some credit for the wave of protests that is spreading across the Middle East – from Tunisia and Algeria to Egypt and Yemen. The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, its attacks on Pakistan, interventions in Somalia and Yemen, its shamefaced support for Israel’s murderous wars against the Palestinians and the Lebanese, and its deepening sanctions and daily threats against Iran have produced one result for sure: they have accelerated the pace of history in this part of the world.

The imperial dictum of the United States during its global war against ‘terrorism’ – you are with us or you are against us – forced nearly all the Muslim potentates to kowtow openly before their masters. As the duplicity of these potentates deepened, this shame became impossible to hide. Indeed, on several occasions, they were forced to flaunt their true colors. Saudi Arabia and Egypt openly blamed Hezbullah when Israel launched its bombing and invasion of southern Lebanon in July 2006; they repeated this performance again when Israel began its massacres in Gaza in December of 2008. Saudi Arabia has been ready to relinquish sovereign rights over its airspace, should Israel want to launch an attack against Iran. Indeed, Wikileaks has revealed that the Saudis were urging their masters to “cut off the snake’s head” – that is, launch a war against Iran. Openly, Egypt has been collaborating with Israel to tighten the deadly noose around Gaza.

The most egregious case of this surrender of potentates is the one presented by the Palestinian Authority. The treachery of the PLO against its people had begun in 1993 with the Oslo Accords. Over the last ten years, they have carried this surrender to its logical conclusion. The top henchmen of the PA have castrated themselves to become Israeli eunuchs, openly and secretly cheering Israel’s total war against Gaza and the strangulation of the West Bank.

Did these surrenders, sellouts, humiliations go unnoticed by the peoples of this region stretching from Mauritania and Egypt to Pakistan and Indonesia?

It is true that the ‘Arab street’ – the West’s choice words for denigrating people’s will in the Middle East – did not explode into action at the American invasion of Iraq, but many in Iraq did deliver their message quite forcefully to the Americans – both Iraq’s Shi’as and Sunnis. If the people did not speak out then, it was because they stood against brutal dictatorships and despotisms that had established an iron grip over their lives. Yes, the people had been cowed by the brutality of these regimes: but they were not without resolution, they were not without a determination to overthrow their bondage. They were only waiting for their chance, for some spark that would ignite their hearts and reduce to cinders their fear of arrests, torture and killings that would be brought upon them by their tormentors.

Now that moment is here. The fear of tyrants was first cast aside by the Tunisians; within weeks their tyrant boarded a jet and fled across the Mediterranean. The sparks from this conflagration have now spread both west and east – to Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen. In the days ahead, it may spread to Sudan, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and who knows where else. Perhaps, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-wells disguised as countries, as sheikhdoms, may remain immune to this conflagration – as they remained immune to the earlier conflagration of Arab nationalism. But their time too will come – it will come in other ways.

This is not a declaration of victory – for that is still far away. The forces of tyranny and reaction – in cahoots with their puppet masters in the United States, Israel, Britain and France – will use brute force to suppress the rise of people power, they will use every subterfuge to deceive the people, and they will find many allies in upper and middle classes enriched by the terrorist regimes they have served. The people will stand up to the brute force that will be brought against them. They will see through the deceptions of the threatened regimes – the half-measures that will be proffered to break the momentum of the people’s movements. The Tunisians have seen through the pathetic ploys of their so-called coalition government – and are demanding the departure of all the members of Ben Ali’s cohort of bandits.

It is impossible to predict how this new historical phase, how this remaking of the Middle East will proceed. The Western media declares that the protests unfolding before us are leaderless, but that is only because they cannot see the leaders. Certainly, there are leaders emerging even now on the ground, from the ranks of workers, students, teachers, engineers, lawyers and doctors, from the cohorts of the unemployed, from the archipelago of prisons where these regimes have tortured their victims. Of the cadres of older leaders, many are still in prison: others planning their return from forced exile. If these older leaders hesitate to join the protests, to offer leadership, they will be replaced by new cadres of younger, untainted and more vigorous leadership.

Yes, the neoconservatives may well take some credit for this ominous (for them) turn of events. By their stupendous overreach, this clan of conspirators has done much harm to their host country. In the wake of the wars they have unleashed, forcing the US to spend trillions on the military, its competitors have been stealing the march, leaving it behind in one field after another. Now this has been duly acknowledged by President Obama in his State of the Union address.

The events unfolding mark yet another attempt by an important segment of the Islamicate to end the stasis of history imposed upon them. Starting with the industrial programs of Mohammad Ali Pasha in the early decades of the 19th century, Western powers have reversed several previous attempts by the Arabs to re-enter the stage of history. Will the Western powers again choose to stand in the way of this new beginning? Almost certainly, they will try both overtly and covertly. Is it possible that this time such obstructionism is too late – and counterproductive as well? In the early 1920s, the Western powers failed to dismember Turkey. They have failed to derail the Iranian revolution. Can they now stand up against another surge of people power in the Arab world, in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and beyond?

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave, 2009) and Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan, 2000). He contributed this article to

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