Tariq Ali on Imperialism, the Arab Spring, and the crisis

David Barsamian interviewed Tariq Ali in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on October 26, 2011 for the International Socialist Review.

The Revolts in the Arab Middle East, beginning in Tunisia in December of 2010, seemingly took the world by surprise. But before we talk about what’s happened in the last year, set the historical context of the post-colonial Arab states.

Essentially what happened in the Arab world after the Second World War was that the weakening of the British and French empires made it very difficult for them to exercise any real control. So it was only a question of time. Saudi Arabia had already been sorted out during the Second World War itself, when Roosevelt and the American government took charge of the kingdom without a word of thank you to the British. Saudi Arabia was then safe with the United States and has remained so till today.

In Egypt, Iraq—let’s take these two countries to start with—we had European empires still exercising an influence, British troops present, the Suez Canal owned by the West. And then we had the beginning of a set of revolutions, often led by the military but supported by a large section of the population. The toppling of King Farouk in Egypt in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers transformed that country. It wouldn’t have transformed it had Nasser not decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. That was the key decision that he took in the interests of his country. By taking that decision, he slapped the face of the European empires, which is why the United States was not that concerned with it. Washington was not directly affected.

The British response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal was to prepare an invasion of Egypt. Britain, France, and Israel—the dilapidated British lion, helped by the French fox and the Israeli skunk—launched a three-part attack on Egypt in 1956. And the entire Arab world gasped. The Egyptians, of course, fought back, but the key player—and one has to recognize this—was the United States. They had not been asked permission before this happened. It was a critical moment in the Cold War. They didn’t want Nasser to fall into the arms of the Soviet Union, and they thought that the British and French were driving him in that direction. That was the last time the British and the French ever did anything major without asking the permission of the United States.

So the Suez invasion created the birth of Arab nationalism at the same time it marked the total end of the British Empire. Africa was yet to be given its independence, but that came to an end. Nasser, of course, treated the triumph in Egypt—the Suez Canal remained under Egyptian control—as a lesson for the Arabs that this is the way you go forward: You fight, you take actions. And a huge nationalist wave engulfed that world. There were times when people felt that we could have a common Arab nation with three concurrent capitals—Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad. In 1958 there was a revolution in Iraq and the pro-British regime was wiped out. The king and his horrific uncle, the crown prince, were publicly hanged. In Egypt the monarchy had been overthrown. So the crown heads of the Arab world were shaking, tottering. It was an incredible mood, which I remember well as a young person growing up at the time. We were excited by it.

Then what happened is, of course, the Israelis were now central to US strategy. They didn’t want to use the European powers. The Americans were then in Saudi Arabia themselves and more or less in the Gulf, though not to the extent to which they are now. The Israelis became the central players on behalf of the US. The 1967 war was decisive for a number of reasons. The defeat inflicted by the Israeli army on the Egyptians and the Syrians marked the end of the nationalist phase in Arab politics. It never recovered from that. Israel was backed by the West, particularly by the United States. And the US, impressed by the skill and ease with which the Israelis had punished Arab nationalism, became friends for life. It was 1967, not 1948. 1948 was important for the formation of Israel, backed by the US and Britain; but it’s not until 1967 that the United States really embraced Israel. And from then on it was “my house is your house” between these two state powers.

Nasser died soon afterwards, and by the early 1970s the US was pushing Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, to be a big boy and do the deal with Israel. Because they felt that Egypt, as the most important and most powerful state both in terms of population and military force, was needed in order to end this confrontation with Israel. So the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord was signed. Of course, both these rogues, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, got the Nobel Peace Prize—hardly a surprise. It was the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, who made a memorable remark at that time when she was asked, “What do you think of these two guys getting the Peace Prize?” She said, “It’s the wrong prize. They deserved an Oscar,” because they acted so well.

I think what we saw with the emergence of the Sadat government was a total capitulation to Israel in terms of foreign policy—it was a humiliating peace treaty for Egypt, saying that its armies couldn’t move freely within Egyptian borders without the Israelis being informed beforehand; and it meant the abandonment of the Palestinians by the Egyptian state. And thirdly, it meant for Egypt now entering the embrace not just of Israel but also of the West. So all of the progressive reforms of Nasser were dismantled. By the 1980s, the process of privatization and the removal of the social safety net, which we are now very familiar with, had begun. Islamist groups were used by Sadat to victimize, repress, and destroy the nationalist presence on the campuses. Quite horrible stories came out at that time. They created what became the Egypt we know till the uprising: rock-solid, hard dictatorship based on repression.

But the peace treaty split Sadat’s supporters within the Islamist ranks, and the group which finally bumped him off cited that as a key reason why they had bumped him off. His death was not as unpopular as was painted in the Western press, despite the people who carried it out. Many Egyptians said, “Thank God this has happened.” Mubarak was present when Sadat was killed, but he was very quick to escape harm by hiding under a table on the reviewing stand. He saved his life and he succeeded Sadat, and he moderated things a tiny bit. But within a few years he was back on track doing exactly the same things and being far more repressive than even Sadat had been. And so we saw the emergence of this dictatorship, which became more and more moth-eaten, but had to rely largely on repression to maintain order, and on American largesse—billions in aid, so-called, which went mostly to the military and the elite—in order to stay in power. So that was the combination that did it.

We know that for the last ten years that tensions had been building, first with the Islamists. Mubarak applied a double-edged policy with them: Don’t challenge me frontally on the political domain, and I’ll make lots of concessions to you culturally. And that is what he did, which actually made them stronger. And they didn’t challenge him politically. I remember—I was in Cairo in 2002 meeting a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was a doctor, in his clinic because the Brotherhood was illegal. I said, “What are you guys going to do when the Americans invade Iraq?” And he said, “Brother Tariq, let me tell you this. The gates of hell will open.” I said, “I look forward to it, because you could actually play a very big part. If Egypt goes up, it will be difficult.” “Don’t you worry,” he said.

Of course, when Iraq was invaded, nothing happened. No gates opened up of hell or heaven or anything else. We saw very little opposition in that country. The Brotherhood was repressed—many of its militants were tortured—but less and less. Largely, Mubarak threatened them because he knew a lot of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were businessmen. So every time they did something he didn’t like, he would say, “OK, we’ll take all your licenses away.” So immediately a section of the Brotherhood leadership would fall back into line. The young who were being recruited were more militant. But what we are talking about now is basically the only serious political organization that existed in Egypt in these years, because a huge vacuum had been created by the destruction of the nationalists. They were beaten, they had their tail between their legs. They were there, but they did very little.

It was the Brotherhood that had a presence when the uprising happened. And what joyous days they were, when the young people poured out onto the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and Suez, just challenging the regime on every front and throwing each ball back into its own court. If you want to repress us, you will have to use the army. At the same time, the demonstrators, their young faces filled with hope, were fraternizing with the Egyptian military, embracing soldiers and officers, making it very difficult for them to turn the tanks on them. So the combination of this actually led to the toppling of the despot.

The Americans finally realized they couldn’t keep him in power. Though they tried very hard. Hillary Clinton stated in public, “Mubarak has been a loyal friend. Why, Bill and I regard him as family.” Well, of course you do, but the Egyptian people never regarded him as family. Never was this disjuncture between US-backed despots in the Arab world and the bulk of the people so clear as in the streets of Egypt in those months. They were really days of joy.

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