Part II of Syria, Turkey and the Arab revolt
by Wilhelm Langthaler
We are facing a democratic popular revolution directed against the old imperial order. It was a spontaneous revolt without a prepared political leadership. It is not by accident that the strongest popular political force across the region, political Islam in all its variants, neither initiated nor lead the upheaval. It has been rather a general leftist sentiment that inspired the first line of combat.
The Arab ancien regime
The Middle East has always been a neuralgic point of the imperialist world system. To simplify: there is Israel and petroleum. It is not by accident that the Palestinian resistance continued while after 1989/1991 nearly all other popular movements against the imperial capitalist elites ceded.
Under these extremely unfavourable conditions this continued resistance, however, suffered deformations. In the absence of mass movements there was militarism. The other deformation was culturalism tending towards sectarianism. Its highest expression was al-Qaeda type Jihadism with its gesamtkunstwerk [all-embracing, holistic artwork] 9/11. It could deal some important symbolic blows to imperialism but without the masses it could not win.
The old Middle East imperial order was essentially established in 1967 (after the Israeli victory in the seven-day June war) and 1991 (end of the bipolar world with the first attack on Iraq). Nearly all of the central Arab regimes had been products of anti-colonial struggles except on the periphery in Morocco and the Arab peninsula, while Jordan can be interpreted as an Israeli appendix. Under imperialist pressure and permanent military threat by Israel the Arab regimes succumbed to the US empire. Economically they embarked on the worst neo-liberal recipes imposed by the IMF-WB, while politically they built a secularist despotism often assuming dynastical forms. These elites were characterised by extreme nepotism alienating even parts of the social elites themselves.
This is true not only for those who dared to be openly pro-western but also for those still trying to squeeze out the last drop of their nationalist or anti-colonialist credentials of the past like Libya, Algeria or Syria. One should not forget that Qaddafi’s Libya eventually became a preferred business partner of the west; that Algeria’s military staged a coup against electorally successful Islamists with the support of imperialism; and that Syria in return for is support for the US war on Iraq in 1991 was rewarded with a substantial share in Lebanon.
Regarding Syria it remains true that it entered an alliance with Iran, supports the Lebanese resistance led by Hezbollah and offers the Palestinian resistance groups a safe haven. These aspects of the Syrian regime merit support, but without closing our eyes to Syria's role representing the 1967/1991 order. This seems contradictory but actually shows that even in the most reactionary times imperialism is never in total control.
One may look at Iran itself as an example. Despite Iran's deep and real conflict with the very 1967/1991 order, which the Islamic revolution did defy, Tehran supported the US attacks on Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Iran tried to ride the imperial tiger and actually was partially successful in doing so – to the detriment of the popular resistance!
Here come the Arab popular masses
The living conditions of the Arab masses continuously deteriorated. The situation had already become unbearable for a long time: socio-economically and politically as well as culturally. But the explosion needed decades to come. It only came when the US empire displayed severe cracks and weaknesses. Not to forget the heroic struggles as in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan, which paved the way for the mass revolt.
The programme of the mass movement is essentially the same all across the region directed against the 1967/1991 elites.
• end despotism – for democratic rights
• social survival and justice
• national and cultural independence from the west
We are facing a democratic popular revolution directed against the old imperial order. It was a spontaneous revolt without a prepared political leadership. It is not by accident that the strongest popular political force across the region, political Islam in all its variants, neither initiated nor lead the upheaval. It has been rather a general leftist sentiment that inspired the first line of combat. The Islamists had to join in later. This is definitely not an Islamic uprising but a democratic one, which the Islamic forces had to embrace because their popular following has been organically participating.
But we are only at the very beginning. The outcome is still unknown. The decisive factor is that the popular masses got in motion. This is an element of paramount importance. Therefore a return to the old system is very unlikely while a re-integration into the imperialist system will have to cope with this new factor. Thus it is impossible without substantial concessions. We are faced with a prolonged phase of conflict and struggle where the ruling elites will be unable to suppress the popular masses in the same way as before and will face great difficulties to establish a new and more sustainable system of domination. The global economic crisis decisively adds to these troubles.
New role for Islamism?
Under the rule of the ancien regime Islamism not only became the strongest popular force but also dominated the anti-imperialist resistances. It would be silly to believe that their inability to lead the democratic revolt would make them disappear or weaken them substantially. It is all too obvious that they will play a pre-eminent role also in the future system setup.
What the democratic movement does indeed show is that the Islamists are not the only ones to represent the popular masses. The triple demand of the movement was even better represented by others: democracy-social survival-independence. Or to put it differently: within the spontaneous democratic revolt a social revolutionary milieu played a decisive role and acquired important popular credit.
Furthermore, there are not only the popular masses. There are middle classes and there are elites in different political formations. All social strata will try to make use of or link up with the Islamic forces to further their interests. Once they are playing the central role within the new political system the forces of political Islam necessarily will divide into different tendencies and be put to a permanent test. “Islam is the solution” will become void as concrete answers will be required very soon.
On the other hand one should not think that the Islamists will simply reproduce the old system as some secularists suspect. They cannot do so as that would be outright treason of the democratic revolt. Such a betrayal would cost them dearly or could even mean political suicide. What makes them different from the old elites is that the Islamic forces are deeply rooted within the popular masses, including the poorest strata.
Together with the despots some geo-political anti-imperialists claim that reactionary Salafism will be strengthened or even prevail, thus bringing back through the back door US rule via Riyadh. More sophisticated ones say that will happen via the Muslim Brotherhood’s Qatar and/or Ankara connection.
Regarding Salafism it must be said that it strongly opposed the revolution in Egypt. The Salafis were the only significant internal force to support Mubarak till the end. Together with their Saudi donors they are opposed to the democratic revolution across the region. They swam against the democratic current. Also in Syria, where the Salafis oppose the Assad regime, they are against the general democratic spirit of the revolt.
But it is also clear that a more democratic system will give the Salifists a certain share of power, which especially in Egypt is significant. People need to test the Salafi promises in politics. This is also the meaning of democracy. There is, however, no danger that the Salafis could become the dominant force. On the contrary, despite opposing elections they became the strongest promoters for the Egyptian elections. Differing from the more liberal Muslim Brotherhood (MB) the strongest single Salafi party in Egypt, Al Nour, supported the Tahrir II movement. Not even Salafis are immune to the contagion of the democratic revolt, which also affects their very poor and uneducated constituencies.
Meanwhile there can be no doubt that the axis MB-Qatar-Turkey will play a decisive role in re-designing the political rule in the region. But we do not believe that it will be a simple reproduction of the old system. A new order will tend more towards the emerging multi-polar global architecture.
The US and especially Barack Obama did indeed understand that they could not continue with the permanent and pre-emptive war waged under George W. Bush. Washington partially lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which taught the global subalterns that resistance does yield results. Then also the crisis of the world capitalist economy came. The risk of an explosion became definitely too high. With his Cairo speech in 2009 Obama changed Washington's tone. The explosion, however, could not be averted. It led to the collapse of the main pillars of the old regional order.
Despite having tried until the last minute to save what could be saved, Washington quickly grasped that the U.S. needed to change their approach. The old secular despots can neither be kept nor reproduced. (The exception of the Gulf, where the tyrants are not even secular, will cause them further troubles.)
So Washington is skeptical of the attempt by the Egyptian military to reproduce the old system. If even Mubarak could not keep it, why then should his much weaker epigones be able to do so, given also the looming economic crisis?
The idea suggests itself to Washington: the Muslim Brotherhood, the most consistent Islamic force with a massive popular following but at the same time dominated and controlled by middle and upper class sections, needs to be embraced and co-opted. Regardless of past conflicts (mainly over Hamas and Israel) there is simply no other option for the US and the west at large.
But will the MB be willing and/or able to build a pro-imperialist regime as in the past? No way! Even the US is aware of this fact. They therefore will not exclusively rely upon the MB. Take Turkey as an example. There a MB family member in a certain way anticipated the democratic demands, implementing them from above. But that meant also to allow more democratic rights and a more balanced foreign policy. On the socio-economic field the AKP was lucky Turkey was experiencing an unprecedented boom – something its Arab neighbours will not benefit from. The social crisis in Arab societies is much deeper and the masses have already come into motion. The next period will thus see many more conflicts there than in Turkey. While political Islam in some countries like Egypt is more influential than in Turkey, its organisational landscape is also much more differentiated. The MB is only one force among many and has stiff competition. The US will not hesitate to pit one group against the other and use also its other allies outside the Islamist milieu. A stable and hegemonic pro-imperialist regime under the MB’s lead therefore will be unlikely.
It is not easy to predict the outcome of the new setup but it is definitely clear that it will need to take the interests of the popular masses more into account than before. Therefore it will be qualitatively less reliable for the US. And what is the most important aspect: the popular masses expressing their interests cannot be quelled as before. This means also that the political liberties of the social revolutionary and anti-imperialist forces will be definitely larger.
Seen from another side: A western embrace might change and co-opt some Islamist factions, which would historically be neither new nor surprising. But it cannot change the entire character of the popular movement as imperialism has nothing serious to offer. There will be no Middle East Marshall plan given also the unbreakable tie to Israel. There is only social misery ahead.
To interpret the Arab spring as a CIA plot or coloured revolution for the implementation of Washington's Greater Middle East plan reflects a paranoiac aggrandizement of the invincible power of capitalist imperialism and a total contempt for the popular masses. To defend the old 1967/1991 regimes miming anti-imperialism is not only betting on the wrong horse, it is a crime against the global revolutionary anti-imperialist movement, for which the Middle East is a decisive place. This time the geo-politicians are definitely on the wrong side of history and a clean break is necessary.
The Libyan case
Did NATO intervene in order to topple an anti-imperialist leader and grab the rich oil reserves of the country? Why then did business run so well before and why was Qaddafi an honoured guest in Paris, Rome and other "human rights capitals"? Something in this explanation doesn't mesh.
We offer a different reading: Qaddafi was the cheapest victim possible in order to whitewash the western record of not only supporting the Arab despots but even creating them. Among his people he was totally isolated and his rule politically was only based on his clan. Furthermore the opposition is without any serious political tradition and therefore deemed to be not dangerous (which later turned out to be not true even in Libya). NATO intervened to take political control of the Arab democratic revolt at its weakest point where it virtually had two impossible and unacceptable alternatives: Either be ruthlessly repressed or to serve as ground troops of NATO.
The MB and other Islamic currents fell into this trap. While in the short run the NATO war was a political victory for imperialism, Libya will not be sustainable. Without a massive military presence, which is highly unlikely, it will be difficult to control the country by way of a puppet regime similarly reliable as Qaddafi. Even under the most favourable possible conditions created by an imperialist military victory, the new setup will need to reflect the interests of the popular masses more than before. The regime will be less repressive (although it remains to be seen whether they are able to build a unified state at all). Despite the political backwardness of the country due to history and the oil rent, imperialist intervention will not succeed in medium and long-term range to keep an anti-imperialist opposition away. But it is also clear that the country will remain a rearguard of the revolution.
Only against this general framework it is possible to judge the Syrian situation.