Popular uprisings that began with peaceful protests in Tunisia and Algeria nearly a year ago, and spread across the Arab world, have created a new reality, not only in countries to experience political awakening, but far beyond. More worryingly for Washington, the Arab Spring created fresh uncertainties and pressures for United States policy. With the first anniversary of those momentous events approaching, there is growing resentment among many Arabs who feel that their revolutions have been hijacked by forces not originally anticipated. Demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait in the last few days are acute symptoms of the prevailing mood in the region.
Two opposing trends are at work. The pressure from below succeeded in overthrowing the regimes in Algeria and Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak, though not the ruling military order, in Egypt. But the pressure from above has been decisive in the overthrow and lynching of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after NATO’s intervention. It also continues to sustain Bahrain’s minority Sunni ruling class, thanks to the entry of Saudi troops and Western military assistance.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is much more resilient, despite every conceivable attempt by the United States and its Arab and European allies. I say “every conceivable attempt” because the prospect of the United Nations Security Council approving a Libya-type full-scale Western-led intervention in Syria is much less likely. The Russians and the Chinese would not play ball with America, Britain and France.
Even so, external forces look determined to decide Syria’s fate. A lot depends on whether the Syrian armed forces will mostly remain loyal to the regime. Rumors of defections from the Syrian military thrive, but for now the military as an institution appears to be with Assad––just about. However, with the United States determined to eventually see regime change in Syria too, the course of events there could be even more bloody. Its implications for the Middle East, starting from neighboring Lebanon, will be very serious indeed.
What began so hopefully in the Arab world a year ago has transpired into something bloody and ugly. Authoritarian regimes, assisted and sustained by great powers, have long dominated the region. Although the Cold War ended and the Soviet threat ceased more than two decades ago, the United States continues to pursue its grand strategy in the region with increasing and desperate vigor. The need for oil and support for Israel remain the two fundamental planks of U.S. foreign policy. The Arab Spring threatened the status quo, and with it America’s interests, in the Middle East. It had to be reversed. What we see now is a counterrevolution from above, trying to frustrate the will of the people. After Libya, the only exception is Syria. Democracy would be very welcome there, as it would be throughout the Arab world. But turmoil inspired by foreign powers is not what the region needs.
The supreme irony in all this is that both Libya and Syria, now being targeted by Washington on grounds of humanitarian intervention, had actually collaborated with the torture program during America’s “war on terror.” The Libyan and Syrian regimes accepted detainees rendered by the U.S. and British intelligence agencies and tortured them in their notorious prisons. As for old friends like Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they had to be abandoned. They had served their purpose and become liabilities. The tide of popular opposition to them had become unstoppable.
Political expediency demanded that they be sacrificed in the interest of Washington’s alliance with the military in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and the pace of change be controlled. Emboldened by Washington’s understanding and encouragement, the Egyptian military has been tightening its grip in the country. A climate of fear and sorrow pervades the streets of Cairo in advance of parliamentary elections beginning on November 28. And in response to calls for limiting military assistance to Egypt, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reaffirmed that the United States is against “imposing any conditions.”
Egypt is the biggest, most powerful country in the Arab world. Compliance of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the leading oil exporter and most influential in the Islamic world, is vital for Israeli security and the continuing U.S. supremacy in the Middle East. Hence it is vital for the Obama administration that the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with smaller Gulf states, remain beholden to Washington.
Double standards of international law for friends and foes is the name of the game while the United States pursues its grand strategy in the Middle East. Not learning lessons from the calamitous legacy of America’s wars under the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, and more recently from George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” it is “Carry On Barack Obama.” As we approach the next chapter of recent bloody history, it is difficult to escape a deeper sense of foreboding.