The patchwork political landscape of the Arab world — the client monarchies, degenerated nationalist dictatorships and the imperial gasoline stations known as the Gulf states — was the outcome of an intensive experience of Anglo-French colonialism. This was followed after World War II by a complex process of imperial transition to the US. The result was a radical anti-colonial Arab nationalism and Zionist expansionism within the wider framework of the Cold War.
When the Cold War ended, Washington took charge of the region, initially through local potentates, then through military bases and direct occupation. Democracy never entered the frame, enabling the Israelis to boast that they alone were an oasis of light in the heart of Arab darkness. How has all this been affected by the Arab intifada that began four months ago?
In January, Arab streets resounded to the slogan that united the masses regardless of class or creed: Al-Sha’b yurid isquat al-nizam! — “The people want the downfall of the regime!”
The images streaming out from Tunis to Cairo, Sana’a to Bahrain, are of Arab peoples on their feet once again. On Jan. 14, as chanting crowds converged on the ministry of the interior, former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. On Feb. 11, the national uprising in Egypt toppled the dictatorship of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as mass rebellion erupted in Libya and the Yemen.
In occupied Iraq, demonstrators protested against the corruption of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime and, more recently, against the presence of US troops and bases. Jordan was shaken by nationwide strikes and tribal rebellion. Protests in Bahrain spiraled into calls for the overthrow of the monarchy, an event that scared the neighboring Saudi kleptocrats and their Western patrons, who can’t conceive of an Arabia without sultans. Even as I write, the corrupt and brutal Baathist outfit in Syria, under siege by its own people, is struggling for its life.
The dual determinants of the uprisings were both economic — with mass unemployment, rising prices and scarcity of essential commodities — and political: cronyism, corruption, repression and torture. Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the crucial pillars of US strategy in the region, as confirmed recently by US Vice President Joe Biden, who stated that he was more concerned about Egypt than Libya.
The worry here is Israel; the fear that an out-of-control democratic government might renege on the peace treaty. Washington has, for the time being, succeeded in rerouting the political process into a carefully orchestrated change, led by Mubarak’s defence minister and chief of staff, the latter being particularly close to the US.
Most of the regime is still in place. Its key messages are the need for stability and a return to work. Fevered behind-the scenes negotiations between Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are continuing. A slightly amended old Constitution remains in force and the South American model of huge social movements producing new political organizations that triumph at the polls and institute social reforms is far from being replicated in the Arab world, thus not posing any serious challenge, until now, to the economic status quo.
The mass movement remains alert in both Tunisia and Egypt, but it is short of political instruments that reflect the general will. The first phase is over. The second, that of rolling back the movements, has begun.