Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Professor of Global Studies and President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), discusses the Arab Uprising in this article presented in a Q & A format.
1) Is it right to describe what is happening in a handful of Arab states as an “Arab Uprising” since most of the Arab states are not affected by the demonstrations and protests?
Apart from Tunisia and Egypt, protests have occurred in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen. It may spread to other Arab countries. The five put together, it is true, would be less than a quarter of the Arab states we have. But the impact of the mass protests is felt in most of the other Arab states. Some government leaders are feeling very nervous. Besides, Egypt is in the eye of the storm at the moment and Egypt, given its history, its politics, and its population, is, in some ways, the centre of the Arab world.
2) Is this a genuine people’s uprising? Some well-known Russian and German analysts are of the view that it has been engineered by the US since the US wants to replace some of their ageing allies in the Arab world to prevent chaos from breaking out when they pass on.
That some of the US’s allies — like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — are in their eighties is a fact. It is also true that US officials have been discussing “orderly transitions” in the Arab world for some time now. But it is hard to believe that any one in Washington or London or Tel Aviv would want to engineer mass protests as a way of achieving those transitions. Leaders in these capitals and their intelligence networks and think tanks know that it is not easy to control and direct mass uprisings towards outcomes that one has in mind. This is especially true of West Asia and North Africa (WANA) where negative feelings among the people towards the US and Israeli elites are so pervasive. Would any American, or Israeli or British leader in his right senses want to take that sort of risk in a region where the defining political issue of the moment is the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians? Besides, they are very much aware that in a number of countries in WANA the strongest — and the most popular — political movement at the grassroots level invariably has an Islamic orientation and is opposed to occupation (of Palestine and other Arab lands) and oppression. My own feeling is that the US leadership and its allies did not expect this uprising but now that it is happening, they are trying very hard to determine its outcome. They are hell-bent on ensuring that their interests in the region triumph, whatever the costs and consequences.
3) Will the protesters, the millions of dissidents in Egypt who yearn for genuine change accept this?
Some will, but there is a big segment of Egyptian society that resents US and Western attempts to decide and determine its future. These Egyptians know why the US is in the Arab world and in West Asia. It is oil; it is the strategic significance of the entire region: the Mediterranean, the Suez, the Straits of Hormuz; and it is Israel. They know that hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been sacrificed at the altar of US interests. They know how many precious lives — the lives of little children — were snuffed out because of the Anglo-US led sanctions against Iraq that went on for 13 years, and culminated in the invasion and occupation of that blighted land resulting in more death and destruction.
The Egyptians and other Arabs remember all this. This is why there is so much anger against leaders like Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the deposed President of Tunisia, who are viewed rightly as men who facilitated US hegemony of the Arab world in recent years. They are regarded as lackeys serving an imperial agenda. In Cairo and Tunis there were banners denouncing them as agents of the US.
Mubarak and Ben Ali have also been part and parcel of the blatant hypocrisy that characterises US relations with dictatorial regimes everywhere. US leaders have often claimed that they are committed to strengthening freedom and democracy in the Arab world. The former US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, even proclaimed in Cairo in 2005 that, “We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” She launched a foundation called the Foundation for the Future for this purpose. Its chairman until June 2008 was a close US ally, the Malaysian politician, Anwar Ibrahim.
In reality, the US, as everyone knows, gave its full support to Mubarak and Ben Ali and other such dictators who imprisoned, tortured and killed political dissidents with impressive democratic credentials. It is only when these dictators were on the verge of collapse that US officials began to support the democratic aspirations of their people. What makes their hypocrisy worse is their suppression of genuine attempts by people in the region to practise democratic principles. When the Islamic party, Hamas, won a free and fair election in Occupied Palestine in January 2006, it was subjected to a boycott and isolated by the US and the European Union. It is because of such hypocrisy that those who are struggling for change in Egypt and elsewhere have very little faith in the US leadership.
4) In your reply just now you mentioned ‘Israel’. Surely ‘Israel’ is an even more compelling factor in the people’s rage against their leaders.
If US hegemony evokes negative vibes, it is partly because that hegemony has been used to protect and reinforce Israel’s position in the region. Israel—more than the US — is perceived by many Arabs as a bane upon their countries. Leaders and governments who collude with the Israeli regime are often viewed as traitors to the Palestinian cause.
For hosting former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon in Tunis some years ago, Ben Ali was denounced by many Islamic and secular groups in the Arab world. Mubarak, whose country has diplomatic ties with Israel, was condemned by all and sundry for closing the Rafah crossing at the Egypt –Gaza border during the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. It aggravated the already precarious position of the besieged people of Gaza. When Israel attacked Lebanon in July 2006, Mubarak adopted an antagonistic attitude towards the target, namely, the Hezbollah, the most effective movement in the Arab world resisting Israeli aggression.
Israel and those who hobnob with her, incense a lot of Arabs and Muslims not simply because of the manner in which Israel was created in 1948 which was a terrible travesty of justice. Everything Israel has done since then — the conquest of even more Palestinian and Arab territories, the killing of thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs, the expulsion and eviction of Palestinian families, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the harassment at countless checkpoints which a Palestinian has to endure on a daily basis, and the apartheid wall that barricades Palestinians— have all contributed to the collective humiliation of the Arab and the Muslim. Israel’s arrogance and haughtiness have seared their psyche as nothing else has in the last 63 years. Israel is a perpetual affront to their human dignity. And the protests in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Algeria and in Yemen are about dignity.
5) Surely, the Arab Uprising is not just about how Israeli arrogance and US hegemony have trampled upon the dignity of the people. Hasn’t the economic situation also contributed to mass anger?
Undoubtedly. It has been estimated that about 140 million Arabs— 40% of the total population— live below the poverty line. But absolute poverty alone has seldom given rise to mass uprisings in history. It is widening income and wealth disparities, exacerbated by increasing food prices and high unemployment, that have begun to hurt a lot of people. While the policies and priorities set by the national elite are partly responsible for this economic malaise, the global economic environment has also been a major factor. Global food prices, for instance, shot up dramatically towards the end of 2010 due to a variety of reasons ranging from natural disasters and climate change to the conversion of food crops to bio-fuel and rampant speculation in commodities. Both Tunisia and Egypt import food today, when the latter was in fact self-sufficient in food in the sixties.
Egypt’s present dependence upon food imports reflects a major structural flaw in a number of Arab economies and indeed other economies in both the Global South and the Global North. Starting from the eighties, they began to implement “neo-liberal” capitalist policies which inter-alia required the rolling back of the state that in Egypt’s case meant the dismantling of government managed cooperatives in agriculture, the deregulation of the distribution of agricultural produce and the elimination of farm subsidies and food subsidies. Besides, neo-liberal capitalism also led to the opening up of the domestic market to food imports that were more competitive which in turn affected local food production. Consequently, food production declined significantly and Egypt became a net food importer.
Even high unemployment is, to some extent, a result of the dominance of finance capital,— rather than capital for manufacturing activities or the service sector— typical of neo-liberal capitalism. With hedge funds, investment banks and currency speculators ruling the roost, there has been greater concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands. It is not surprising therefore that income and wealth disparities have become starker in today’s Egypt, compared to the Egypt of the sixties and early seventies.
It is important to keep this in mind as protesters rage against some of the symptoms of the disease such as high food prices, massive unemployment and widening disparities.
6) What is the relationship between these economic issues and elite corruption and nepotism which apparently was also one of the causes of the Arab uprising?
When people are suffering as a result of soaring prices of essentials and lack of jobs, allegations about elite corruption and nepotism—especially if they are substantiated — rouse the public ire as few other issues do. It is indisputably true that there is a great deal of corruption at all levels in a number of Arab states. It is often linked to relatives and cronies.
In Tunisia, allegations about Ben Ali’s venality had been circulating for a long while. Invariably, they involved his wife, Leila Trabelsi, whose opulence and extravagance sustained through corrupt means became fodder for the hundreds of thousands of dissidents yearning for change. Their two families had a stake in all major enterprises from banks and airlines to wholesale and retail businesses. Their avarice incited mass hatred.
Much of the anger towards Mubarak and his alleged corruption, revolve around his son Gamal. The father’s nepotism had resulted in the accumulation of so much family wealth that it came to symbolise all the excesses of his 30 year rule in Egypt. What made it worse was Mubarak’s coarse attempt to anoint his son as his successor.
In Yemen too, Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been President since 1978 and was allegedly planning to hand over the reins of power to his son, Ahmed, was forced through popular protest to announce that he had no such intention and that he would relinquish his position when his term expires in 2013. The people are continuing to demand that he leaves office earlier.
7) Isn’t this— leaders staying in office for decades on end and then handing over power to their offspring— one of the main reasons why the Arab street has exploded in anger?
Dynastic politics is repugnant under any circumstances. It becomes even more odious when the man on the throne has been in power for ages and is distinguished by an utter lack of competence and rectitude.
WANA where almost all the Arab states are located is perhaps the only region in the world today where unelected incumbents, or incumbents who were elected in farcical elections, have been clinging on to power for decades, and are trying to hand over the reins of authority to their sons. WANA is also the region where elected parliaments, multi-party electoral competition, institutionalised accountability, legalised political dissent, independent judiciaries, and other such norms and principles of democratic governance are rare.
It is because democratic governance has yet to become the accepted practice in WANA, that young people especially those who have had some exposure to values such as freedom of expression and democratic accountability have turned against dictatorial governments. They abhor the repressive laws, the torture techniques and the brutal suppression of legitimate dissent associated with these regimes. A segment of the older generation that had always resented the political suppression by the elites, have decided to join hands with the young. The result is the explosion of anger that we are witnessing in many of the cities of the region.
8) While this anger must have built up over a period of time, there must have been some trigger…………….
In the case of Tunisia, it was the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a young vegetable seller who was struggling to make ends meet in the midst of soaring food prices and was constantly harassed by the municipal authorities, that triggered an outpouring of angry emotions. 10 days after his funeral, on the 14th of January 2011, Ben Ali who had been in power for 23 years, fled from his country, responding in a sense to the clarion call for his ouster from all strata of society. This gave hope to people in Jordan, Algeria and Egypt who were also hungering for meaningful change. When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came out in the open asking Hosni Mubarak to resign from his presidency, the people of Yemen were encouraged to pressurise their leader to quit.
It is obvious that the Tunisian struggle against tyranny had a cascading effect. Bouazizi’s suicide was emulated in Egypt. Four Egyptians set themselves on fire. But the person who coaxed and challenged the people to congregate in the thousands in Tahrir (Liberation) Square on 25 January to urge Mubarak to step down was a young girl by the name of Asma Mahfouz, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement that has played a big part in organising the mass protests since that day. It was Asma Mahfouz’s courage — and her passionate plea to others to show courage— that convinced a lot of people that they should overcome their fear and stand up for justice. Her voice, like the deaths of her four compatriots, was the trigger that Egypt was waiting for.
9) Isn’t it significant that Bouazizi’s suicide, like Mahfouz’s plea, was disseminated to thousands through the new media?
The Arab Uprising of 2011 will be remembered in history as a revolution that was shaped by the new media and new communication technologies. It is not just websites, blogs and facebooks. Video cameras and mobile phones have been equally important in transmitting images and messages that have helped to mobilise and galvanise the masses in their protests.
The link between the new media and television has also been a critical factor in sustaining the momentum of the struggle for change especially in Egypt. In this regard, the Doha based television network, Al-Jazeera, has played a significant role in the Arab struggle for justice. It has shown in no uncertain terms that it is totally committed to the people’s cause. By adopting an unambiguous position on issues of right and wrong, Al-Jazeera has forced other television networks such as CNN and BBC whose actual agendas are often dovetailed to preserve and perpetuate the interests of the US and Britain and their allies, to accommodate contrarian voices from the Arab street that are often not heard in the West.
10) Is the constant refrain about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin) in the Uprising and the so-called danger of the Uprising becoming like the Islamic Revolution of Iran that one hears over CNN in particular part of that agenda?
The Ikhwan is one of a variety of movements and organisations that is part of the protest in Egypt. It did not initiate the protest. Of course as a grassroots movement it is reputed to be the most disciplined and the best organised. It has been around for more than 80 years, though officially it is still banned.
Though it is only one of the actors at the moment— some Western commentators argue— the Ikhwan could well assume leadership once a new government is formed in Egypt, as it happened in Iran. After all, the Islamic element in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was also one of the Revolution’s many components and yet within a couple of years, the religious elite was entrenched in power and had side-lined the other actors.
Those who make this comparison overlook two important differences. The Iranian Revolution, it is true, was diverse but Ayatollah Khomeini, given his religious credentials and his selfless sacrifice, was widely acknowledged as its overall leader. In his almost 20 year struggle against the Shah of Iran, both within the country and in exile, Khomeini articulated a vision of struggle and change that was essentially religious. There were a number of other illustrious clerics, like Ayatollah Taleghani and Ayatollah Mutahhari who were also at the helm of the Iranian Revolution. There is no one from the Ikhwan who plays a role in the Egyptian Uprising that comes anywhere close to the commanding stature of Khomeini or the other Ayatollahs in the Iranian Revolution.
It was partly because of Khomeini’s stature that he was able to shape post-revolutionary Iran in a specific religious mould. The war that Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with the support of a number of Arab monarchies and the connivance of the US, Britain and other Western nations, imposed upon Iran from 1980 to 1988, helped Khomeini to consolidate his religious grip upon his people. There is nothing to suggest that such extraordinary circumstances that allowed a particular leadership with a particular religious orientation to reinforce its position would present themselves again in the case of Egypt.
Besides, the Ikhwan which at various points in history was known for its rigid, sometimes dogmatic conservatism has also undergone some significant changes. Mainstream groups within the movement have become more tolerant of theological differences, more accommodative of the role of women and non-Muslim minorities, and less exclusive in their notion of state and law. It is significant that in the wake of the massacre of Christians in Alexandria a few weeks ago, the Ikhwan played a major role in projecting Muslim-Christian solidarity. Ironically, the political ban on Ikhwan has strengthened its commitment to humanitarian and welfare principles in Islam, and appears to have diluted its earlier obsession with the primacy of power. Nonetheless, there are still some elements within the Ikhwan who remain attached to a superficial, literalist interpretation of Islamic rules and injunctions.
In any case, why are political elites and media commentators in the US, Britain and other Western countries so concerned about the Ikhwan and its ideology in Egypt when they have no qualms about cooperating and collaborating with an Islamic state that adopts an atavistic approach to law and marginalises women and non-Muslim minorities? Is it because Saudi Arabia is not only an unquestioningly loyal ally but is also totally subservient to US and Western hegemony?
In other words, it is not the ‘Islamic state’ or ‘Islamic law’ that is the problem. If the West is assured of acquiescence with its power and dominance, it would be quite happy to accept the Ikhwan. The US and other Western elites are not sure if the Ikhwan will reject their hegemony — as the Islamic Iranian leadership has done— and insist upon the independence and sovereignty of Egypt and the Arab people as a whole. Will the Ikhwan leaders follow the example of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon and pursue a principled position on the liberation of Palestinian and other Arab lands, and oppose Israel’s nefarious designs in the region? Will the Ikhwan — as required by the Qur’an—privilege justice and the dignity of the oppressed and the victims of aggression over and above the interests of the US, British and Israeli elites? Because these are worrying questions for those who seek to perpetuate their hegemony and their power, the Ikhwan and where it stands has become an issue.
12) Instead of focusing upon the Ikhwan, shouldn’t US and Israeli elites reflect on how they can play a constructive role in an Arab world that is asserting its dignity and its honour?
This is precisely what they should be doing. If the people succeed in bringing about fundamental change in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in WANA, US and Israeli elites cannot continue with their present policy of controlling, manipulating and dominating the region through elites who represent their interests more than the well-being of the Arab masses. They should adjust to the new realities on the ground.
In more concrete terms, this means justice for the Palestinians—- justice that they have been denied for the last 63 years. Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to Israel and to a new Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza that will have East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinian and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails should be released. The Golan Heights should be returned in its entirety to Syria and the Sheba Farms should be restored to Lebanon. Israel should eliminate its nuclear weapons and WANA should be declared a nuclear weapons free zone. If the US is sincere about respecting and fulfilling the aspirations of the people of the region, it should coax, cajole and coerce Israel to take these measures.
As Israel moves towards peace based upon justice in a new WANA, all the states in the region should also accord formal recognition to Israel.
While the resolution of the Israel-Arab conflict will be the litmus test of whether or not the US is sincere in its attitude towards the Arab people, it will also have to show through deeds that it no longer seeks to perpetuate its political or economic hegemony anywhere in WANA. It should not try to maintain its political control over the region by ensuring that its proxies and agents are elected through the ballot-box. The US should also cease to use the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other such institutions and arrangements to push through neo-liberal capitalist policies and programmes that are clearly inimical to the people’s interest. Instead of trying to shape the destiny of the Arab world for its own hegemonic purpose, the US elite should learn to respect the autonomy and integrity of the people of WANA. It should allow them to harness their own religious and cultural strengths in order to construct their own future, guided by their own vision.
13) Finally, do you see a finale to this Arab Uprising?
Even in Tunisia where the people managed to force the dictator into exile, the situation is still in flux. The interim government has promised a free and fair election and has introduced some democratic reforms. But the apparatus of power and control of the old regime is still in place. Not all banned political movements have been legalised and allowed to function freely. There is still quite a bit of uncertainty.
In Jordan, King Abdullah has dismissed his Cabinet in response to popular discontent but his move is seen by many as cosmetic. Algeria has made some superficial changes to some of its draconian laws while the long-serving President of Yemen, as we have seen, has failed to quell protests, in spite of his promise to go in a couple of years.
However, it is the situation in Egypt that is most unpredictable. It is now the 14th day of the mass protest that began on the 25th of January. The number of protesters at Tahrir Square—- the symbol of the struggle to get rid of Mubarak— had reached a million at one point but has now begun to dwindle. After Mubarak’s announcement a few days ago that he will be stepping down in September 2011, some of the protesters have begun to feel that they had achieved their goal and there was no reason to continue with their agitation.
Talks have now begun between the Mubarak regime represented by the newly appointed Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, and a wide spectrum of political parties and civic groups representing the protest movement, including the banned Ikhwan. According to news reports the first meeting discussed amendments to the Egyptian Constitution, various democratic reforms, plans to combat corruption and prosecute individuals in authority who had abused their power. What is important in these talks, it seems to me, is for the dissidents to persuade the regime to create effective institutional mechanisms immediately that will ensure a fair and free election for the presidency in September 2011— the election that Mubarak has promised not to contest. This demands not just an independent election commission but also full freedom for all aspirants to compete for the highest office in the land.
Preparing for this crucial election should be one of the priorities of the movement for change. The different, sometimes divergent, components of the movement should become more united and more cohesive. They should choose a candidate for the presidency who not only embodies the noblest aspirations of their struggle for justice and freedom but is also honest and upright. It is not just democracy that the person should fight for; freeing Egyptians from an economic ideology that widens the gap between the ‘have-a-lot’ and the ‘have-a-little’ should also be his/her paramount goal. Needless to say, a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict premised upon the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people should be at the top of the candidate’s agenda.
It is doubtful if the ruling regime in Cairo and the American, Israeli and British interests aligned to it will allow such a candidate to succeed. They will go all out in the next few weeks and months to ‘manage change’ in such a manner that it will not address the fundamental challenges facing the people. Managing change for them means making some superficial, cosmetic changes here and there which they hope will be enough to satisfy the people. Their primary objective, there is no need to emphasise, would be to preserve and enhance their vested interests, central to which are Israel and oil.
It would be a shame if they achieved their goal. The hundreds who sacrificed their lives in the Arab Uprising would have died in vain. The dreams of thousands of young women and men who had the courage to defy the dictator would remain unfulfilled. How can we allow the rich and the powerful to crush the hopes of the poor and the powerless through diabolical deceit? Why should might defeat right?
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar,
International Movement for a Just World,
7 February 2011.