Oct 102014

Pro-Morsi Protesters Clash With Security Forces


A collective sigh of relief was almost audible across Washington and other western capitals when Sisi accomplished the mission and successfully staged his blood-drenched military coup. They could all go back to business as usual with the Arabs. No need for the newly devised strategy of containment. No need to sing the praises of freedom, or pay lip service to the emancipation of nations or the popular will. Sisi’s US furnished tanks and the Gulf Sheikhdoms’ petrodollars took care of tarnishing and demolishing the unwelcome Arab Spring. Time to rewind to pre-January 2011 and reconnect with old friends and companions! They have been sorely missed indeed!

Ditch the new rhetoric of ‘change’, ‘transition’, democratisation’, ‘the popular will’ and ‘mutual respect” and pull the worn out familiar dictionary in constant use since World War II out of the drawer. It’s now back to “Stability”, “security”, “our interests” and all the other euphemisms for forced political stagnation, active obstruction of change, and the coercively imposed status quo.

 Voices which had been muted since the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia are reverberating once more. One of them is Denis Ross’s, who recently wrote in the New York Times openly urging the administration to go back to supporting its “friends and partners” in the region. Lest there should be confusion over who these may be, Ross does not hesitate in his article entitled “Islamists are not our friends” to define them in explicit terms. They are “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared”. They offer the only glimmer of light in an otherwise dark Arab ocean. They populate the tiny island that should serve as America’s sole gateway to the region and unique foothold therein. Forget the one and half billion Muslims around the globe, “our” interests lie exclusively with these chosen few and the policies “we” pursue should wholly depend on them.

Everyone else is banished into a vast and vague category labeled   “Islamism”. In this gigantic pot, the moderates of Tunisia’s Ennhadha, Malaysia’s Abim, and reformists of Iran suddenly find themselves thrown alongside the lunatics of Al Qaeda and Isis on the opposite end of the Islamic spectrum. The enormous intellectual and political differences that set them apart no longer matter. Sunnis, Shias, democrats, moderates, Salafis, extremists, and violent anarchists are bundled together and forced into a single monolithic block in a flagrant example of reductionism, oversimplification and colour-blindness.

 Like Many pseudo-liberals, Ross’s discourse is replete with contradictions. While calling for the support of hardened autocrats and ruthless dictators, they still feign an unwavering commitment to “our values” and “democratic pluralist traditions”. Democracy, rights and liberties thus turn into a thin veneer conveniently deployed to disguise the ugliness of egoistic strategies and policies pursued on the ground, a fig leaf behind which narrow myopic self interest hides its nakedness.

Dismissing the Muslim scene as a homogenous entity outside history, these either ignore or willfully turn a blind eye to the intellectual and theological movements and conflicts unfolding there. For alongside thunderous political and military encounters, a more significant, though less visible confrontation is under way on Islam’s battleground. Three divergent strategies of interpretation are actively competing for Muslims’ allegiance.

The first, which traces its origins to the 19th century reform school,  both in its Sunni and Shiite manifestations, sees no contradiction between Islam, democracy, human rights, women’s emancipation, and civil and public liberties. This is the brand of Islam endorsed by the likes of Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s AKP. They are Islamists, but they are also democrats. Islam is their frame of reference, the same function performed by Christianity in the case of the Christian democrats and socialism for the Social democrats.   

 Against this competes an Islam espoused by autocracies and Gulf sheikhdoms, with their official clergy, government preachers, and ruthless religious police, tasked with legitimizing the status quo, authoritarianism and repression in the name of religion and the protection of public mores. Their religion is a state ideology at the service of despotic rulers. This would appear to be the brand of Islam which friends of the Arab world’s autocrats and dictators, such as Ross, favour and would like to see the American administration support.

 Sharing much with this form of Islam, particularly its orthodoxy, literalism and absolutism, proponents of the third interpretation endorse a different type of politics, however. They are Wahhabi anarchists. Their most vocal representatives are Al Qaeda and Isis, who are determined to propel the Muslim world into senseless and endless wars with infidels, both within and without. Like “autocratic Islam”, this is virulently opposed to democracy, human rights, and individual freedoms and openly hostile to democratic Islam.

This is the current intellectual map of the Muslim world. The American administration needs to ponder which direction it would rather the region take. It must decide which Islam it wants: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of real long term stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaida and Isis, with its roots in the absolutism of Saudi Wahhabism.

At the apex of the neo con project, Condoleezza Rice had admitted that “For six decades…, a basic bargain defined the United States‘ engagement in the broader Middle East: we supported authoritarian regimes, and they supported our shared interest in regional stability” confessing that “this old bargain had produced false stability”. It is astonishing that over a decade later, after two American military defeats and consecutive hasty retreats, as well as numerous popular revolts across the region, the American administration is being dragged back to the same disastrous strategy -which Obama had come to power on the pledge of revising and relinquishing.

The first wave of the “Arab Spring” may have receded under the crushing weight of “our” Gulf allies’ conspiracies to destroy political life -with petro-dollars and manufactured anarchy- wherever an Arab will to change has registered itself. But the demands at its core show no sign of ebbing away. Ross’s friends, who danced and cheered when Egypt descended into the bloody abyss of military coups, may succeed in delaying change. But that would only be for a while. They and their patrons in Washington and Europe may soon realize that the Arab masses’ demands for self-determination through democratic constitutions, freely elected parliaments and representative accountable governments may prove too difficult to bury, for the simple reason that they are genuine and entirely legitimate.





Sep 262011



Had the army not pulled the rug from under Mubarak’s feet, siding with protesters in Tahrir Square, the story of Egypt’s revolution might have resembled those of Syria, Yemen and even Libya, more closely. A bitter confrontation would have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, significantly delaying the old president’s fall. The chant that reverberated around Egypt’s squares in the early post-Mubarak days, as euphoric Egyptians embraced soldiers, was “The people and the army are one hand”. This was not only the people’s revolution, but the army’s too. But it is now clear that the army does not perceive itself as a partner in the revolution, but as its representative and guardian: the sole bearer of its legitimacy. Continue reading »

Sep 062011



After six months of defiant resistance, fiery speeches, chilling threats and blood-curdling brutality, Gaddafi has finally fallen on his sword. His collapse, however, is far from the end of the story. Instead, it heralds the start of a more complicated chapter in his country’s history. As tanks surround Gaddafi’s last outposts in Sirte, the cold war over the country’s future gathers pace. The common enemy has been forced out of the scene, and now the vast differences between those he had brought together return to occupy the centre stage. Continue reading »

Jun 082011

Little did Riyadh know that the most severe strategic blow to its regional influence would come not from Tehran, or Tehran’s agents in Baghdad – but Cairo, its closest Arab friend. The ousting of Mubarak did not only mean the loss of a strong ally, but the collapse of the old balance of power. The region could no longer be divided on a Riyadh-Cairo v Tehran-Damascus axis. Revolutions have struck in both camps: in “moderate” Egypt and Tunisia, as in “hardline” Damascus and Tripoli. The principal challenge for the Saudi regime is no longer the influence of Syria, Iran or Hezbollah, but the contagion of revolutions. Continue reading »

May 262011

The first wave of Arab revolutions is entering its second phase: dismantling the structures of political despotism, and embarking on the arduous journey towards genuine change and democratisation. The US, at first confused by the loss of key allies, is now determined to dictate the course and outcome of this ongoing revolution. Continue reading »

Apr 142011


The Saudi regime is under siege. To the west, its heaviest regional ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, has been ousted. To its north, Syria and Jordan are gripped by a wave of protests which shows no sign of receding. On its southern border, unrest in Yemen and Oman rages on. And troops have been dispatched to Bahrain to salvage its influence over the tiny kingdom exerted through the Khalifa clan, and prevent the contagion from spreading to Saudi Arabia’s turbulent eastern provinces, the repository of both its biggest oil reserves and largest Shia population.

Continue reading »

Mar 312011


Arab dictators were not the only ones to have been taken aback by the scale and speed of events in the region. Their allies were also caught off guard. The changes were simply “too much, too fast”, as a stunned US official put it. From being the sole actors and directors on the stage, Europe and the US, along with the various despots, found themselves suddenly reduced to mere spectators, and fearful of the future. Continue reading »

Mar 112011


Saida Sadouni does not conform to the typical image of an Arab revolutionary. But this 77-year-old camped out in the bitter Tunisian cold for more than two weeks in front of the prime minister’s headquarters, leading the historic Kasbah picket that succeeded in forcing Mohamed Ghannouchi’s interim government out of office. “I have resisted French occupation. I have resisted the dictatorships of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. I will not rest until our revolution meets its goals,” she told the thousands of fellow protesters who joined her. She is today widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation. Continue reading »

Feb 162011


Wherever you go around Tunis, you see people demonstrating – at the airport, in front of the post office, schools, ministries, factories: simply everywhere. Protests and pickets are a feature of daily life. People sit in cafes drinking and chatting alongside demonstrators shouting slogans for change. Even small children have turned into political analysts, and are overheard mocking the speeches of Ben Ali, the deposed dictator. I saw one demonstration quietly split in two to allow the tram to pass by, reassembling promptly after its departure. Tunisians seem to have stumbled on the magical power of street protest, and are unwilling to relinquish it. Continue reading »

Jan 282011

We are witnessing the breakdown of the Arab state after decades of failure and mounting crises. The Arab political establishment has never looked weaker than it does today. It is either dying a protracted silent death, corroded from within, or collapsing in thunderous explosions. Tunisia, which toppled its dictator through popular revolution two weeks ago, is by no means an exception. The symptoms are evident throughout the region, from the accelerating movement of protest in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, or the increasing polarisation of Lebanon’s sectarian politics, to the near-collapse of the state in Yemen and Sudan, and its complete disintegration in Somalia. Continue reading »