In this extract from their new book The People Demand, John Rees and Joseph Daher consider the relationship between US imperialism and the popular uprisings across the Arab world.
By John Rees and Joseph Daher
The Arab Revolutions have unfolded in three distinct phases. In the first phase the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions swept all before them. Both the local ruling classes and the imperialist powers failed to predict or to stem the revolutionary wave. The revolutionary forces, including important mobilisations by workers, were broader and more united than elsewhere, partly a product of long years of opposition activity. The armed forces of the state were either broken or neutralised and their loyalty to the dictators eroded. The result was the toppling of the dictators in both countries and the opening up of a longer revolutionary process largely unimpeded by direct or military responses from the major powers.
The second phase came with the co-ordinated military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain and Western-led forces in Libya. These interventions were more than coincidental in timing. They also involved the same state actors. The crushing of the Bahrain revolution was approved by Robert Gates, US Secretary of State for Defense, on a visit to Bahrain just days before the crackdown, but largely carried out by forces from the Gulf States. The Libya intervention was largely carried out by Western military forces with the Gulf states playing the supporting role.
The aim in both cases was the same: to crush and control the emerging revolutionary processes. In Bahrain this was achieved by straightforward repression. In Libya the military intervention, supposedly to assist the revolution, was actually used to corral and control the revolutionary process, ultimately making it militarily, economically and ideologically a vassal of the Western powers. The result has been to impede the march of the revolution everywhere, in Syria and Yemen, as well as in Bahrain, and Libya itself. The dictators have dug in.
The third, most recent, phase of the revolutions has been opened up by the impact of the Arab Revolutions on the Palestinian struggle for freedom. This has had two major elements. Firstly, the Palestinian youth movement (‘the 15 March movement’) pressured, from below, the divided Palestinian factions to make moves towards unity. Secondly, the change in Egyptian foreign policy away from unquestioning submission to US wishes helped create the conditions for the peace deal between Hamas and Fatah. Whatever the problems with the terms on which this unity has been achieved it provides a challenge to US support for Israel, as we show in the next chapter.
Egypt and Tunisia have been invited to the G8 to discuss events in the Middle East and North Africa, while the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been increasingly active towards both countries in suggesting new loans and ‘financial assistance’ to help them with their social and economic crises.
On Thursday, 19 May, Barack Obama delivered a key speech on US policy towards the Middle East. The main message was that the US and the West will pour billions of dollars into the region in support of Egypt, Tunisia and other countries ‘embracing democracy’. This financial assistance, compared to the Marshall Plan, should not be understood as a way to promote democracy, but quite the opposite — as a way to co-opt Arab Revolutions and protect US interests in the region. It is a way to guarantee that, instead of funding social projects, these countries will still be able to pay their debts to international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, and so stay within the confines of neoliberal structures. These institutions will continue to control the socio-economic policies of these countries and to pursue policies that impoverish society and the people as whole.
Egypt has a debt of $30 billion, while the Mubarak family has a fortune some have estimated at $70 billion. Tunisia’s debt is $5 billion and Ben Ali’s fortune has been estimated at $5-8 billion. The debts incurred by those regimes could be classified as ‘odious debt’, a legal concept within international law which has important consequences. It was jurist Alexander Sack, writing in the 1920s, who first defined this principle:
‘If a despotic power incurs a debt not for the needs or in the interests of the State, but to strengthen its despotic regime, to repress the population that fights against it, etc., this debt is odious for the population of all the State. This debt is not an obligation for the nation; it is a regime’s debt, a personal debt of the power that has incurred it, consequently it falls with the fall of this power.’
Both countries therefore have the right to refuse to repay these debts. Yet the current regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have asked for new loans, despite growing criticisms from popular organisations and the left in each country. The US announced debt relief of as much as $1 billion, along with $1 billion credit, for Egypt. Nobody should think this is a reward for democratic advance. Two days before his 19 May speech, Obama pledged several hundred million dollars in aid to King Abdullah of Jordan, despite repression of popular demonstrations calling for reform over the past few months. And not a single line of Obama’s speech addressed Saudi Arabia, a violent and retrograde dictatorship that has made no significant attempt at reform but which is one of America’s main oil suppliers and a key political ally in the region.
Obama made a further speech on Sunday, 22 May to pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It confirmed an unbreakable imperialist relationship with Israel, as a strategic ally in the region that the US needs to secure its interests and to implement imperialist policies. President Obama, who won repeated rounds of applause and a standing ovation, reminded his audience that US financial support for Israel had reached record levels under his administration. He declared his desire to maintain the superiority of the Israeli military over its potential adversaries in the region.
Obama has thus confirmed the continuation of former President Bush’s policy of total support for Israel. Obama’s commitment to a settle- ment based on the 1967 borders ‘with mutual agreed land swaps’ assures Israel of US support for the annexation of its West Bank settlements, built in violation of international law. Obama’s failure to call on Israel to respect the full and equal rights of the 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel legitimates Israel’s growing raft of racist legislation directed against the Palestinian indigenous community.
The US president further described the region as a ‘tough neighborhood’ — a term borrowed from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — where Arabs are the violent and barbarian peoples of the Middle East and Israeli Jews are the peaceful and civilized ones. Obama has called on Palestinians and their supporters to stop ‘delegitimising’ Israel and accept it as ‘a Jewish state’ that is ‘for the Jewish people’. The term ‘delegitimising’ is the word Israel and its supporters have applied to the global Palestine solidarity movement that calls for equal rights, and in particular to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
President Obama also described the Arab Revolutions as a threat to Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan. He therefore advised Israel to accelerate the creation of a bantustan Palestinian state. Obama characterised the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement as an obstacle to peace. The US president also called Hamas a terrorist organisation, insisting it should recognise Israel’s right to exist.
The US’ weakening ability to maintain or impose obedient client dictators on Arab states makes Israel more than ever an important ally. The warm welcome of Netanyahu by members of the US Congress who gave the Israeli prime minister around 30 standing ovations, shows this. Revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have opened up the possibility of freeing the region from US imperialist domination. The key lies in combining solidarity with revolutionary movements with determined opposition to the major powers’ attempts to intervene economically and, above all, militarily in the region.
The behaviour of the new ‘post-revolution’ authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, assisted by Western imperialism, is reminiscent of the approach of Tancredi, nephew of the aristocratic Prince of Salina, in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel ‘The Leopard’. When asked by the Prince why he is intending to fight with Garibaldi’s revolution against his own class, Trancredi answers ‘If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change’.
Western imperialism and the new regimes must give the illusion of change for things to remain the same. The movements in Egypt and elsewhere created a revolutionary process with the power to overthrow the system, not merely to gain reforms. They must struggle for a permanent revolution to achieve far-reaching social and economic change.