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Since the spark of popular revolt electrified Tunisia in January of this year, uprisings continue to spread across the Middle East and North Africa as civil society wages pitched battles against repressive dictatorships and monarchist regimes. Largely unarmed masses from Syria to Yemen have faced down lethal attacks from state forces as they demand basic freedoms, workers’ rights, and an end to Western influence. Leaders have been driven out in Egypt and Tunisia and have left neighboring politicians shaking in their boots.
Left Turn contributing editor Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed analyst and Middle East commentator Lamis Andoni for a perspective on how Middle Eastern and North African civil society movements have initiated, expanded, and given peoples across the region the motivation to rise up to join this “Arab Spring.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman (NBF): Please summarize the social and political uprisings from the context of that spark that began in Tunisia.
Lamis Andoni (LA): What we are witnessing in the Arab world is both a popular movement to break up with the post-colonial dictatorships and a continuation of the national liberation struggles that started in the beginning of the twentieth century.
This is a resurrection of a new form of pan-Arabism based on a struggle for equality and social justice. I do not mean it is a pan-Arab nationalism that precludes other ethnic groups and other nations. But there is a renewed sense of solidarity against the existing Arab order that has been built on a pro-American security network based on repression, suppression, and social injustice.
This is also a rebellion against the neoliberal economic model that has been pushed by the West and endorsed by the ruling elites in all of the Arab countries.
From the outset, the protests that were triggered by [Tunisian activist] Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation shook up the Arab societies from feelings of weakness and impotence. However, it was the ouster of Tunisian president Zain Abedeen Ben Ali that sent a strong signal to the Arab masses that their voices count, that taking action produces change, and that a new era is possible.
The popular movements will not stop. The movement towards freedom is irreversible, and popular movements will proceed at different paces in all Arab countries—unless regimes succeed in fueling civil strife that will slow down the movements and inflict heavy damages on societies.
NBF: NATO forces are dropping bombs on Libya as the US continues to support friendly dictators elsewhere. In places like Bahrain, US-allied Saudi troops came to massacre people on behalf of the monarchy. Can you assess the Western influence in the region at this time of mass popular uprisings?
LA: The West is not concerned about democracy and the people of the region, but it is concerned about its interests. The West seems to have overcome its initial shock and surprise. When the uprisings erupted, it adapted its position to preserve it interests.
Libya has given the West an unexpected opportunity to take a direct role in shaping the future of the country and the region. As Noam Chomsky has said, the US does not want democracy in the region. The US has no problem if regimes change, provided they protect US interests.
The US is a serious threat to Arab uprisings. This is why it is important that the newly-emerging systems in Egypt and Tunisia show some independence. The Egyptian decision to open the Rafah crossing to the occupied Gaza strip and review the scandalous deal that provided gas to Israel at a minimal price are good signs.
Unfortunately Moamar Qaddafi’s murderous clampdown against the Libyans, and the Arab world’s failure to find a solution, has given the West a golden opportunity to intervene in the Arab people’s revolt. The fact that a large segment of the Libyan population supports the intervention—mainly because they feel they need protection—has has marginalized voices who are warning against the consequences of the intervention.
It is difficult to imagine a new Libyan government that will be independent from Western influence and even domination. As always, oil has been at the heart of the Western intervention. Conservative Arab countries have supported the intervention as it sees it an important buffer against the exercise of popular will. Gulf states are afraid of the spread of Arab revolts and have welcomed the Western intervention.
Most of all, the US wants to protect Israel from the consequences of the fall of the security belt around it—a belt that is composed of authoritarian regimes who will not challenge Israel. The collapse of the Mubarak regime has made a big hole in the belt, but America has not lost the hope that it could win or at least neutralize future governments in Egypt.
NBF: You've been following the events in Syria quite closely. The government security forces and armed thugs have been engaged in widespread killings and violence against the Syrian people intent on changing the political structure in their country. As the government continues this violence, the people’s determination seems to strengthen.
LA: The Syrian regime seems determined not to heed peoples' demands and is bent on destroying opposition. Unlike other regimes, it has always boasted of defying Western pressures to accommodate Israel and of supporting Lebanese and Palestinian resistance.
Its status as a “resistance state” has always been its main claim to legitimacy—especially by contrasting itself with the other subservient Arab regimes. But it has always been one of the most repressive Arab regimes, stifling dissent through a network of security organizations that intimidated and terrorized Syrian critics and opponents.
In fact the Syrian regime enjoyed considerable support, if not respect, by many in the Arab world. Hence most Arab political parties, including opponents of other Arab regimes, shied away from critiquing Syria or even discussing its human rights record. Many Arab intellectuals made regular visits to Damascus and openly praised its “steadfastness” against Israel and American projects in the region. Most stayed silent even when Syrian activists and known intellectuals were languishing in Syrian jails.
The brutal Syrian regime’s reaction to the popular protests has ended once and for all the argument, popular among the pan-Arab nationalists, Islamists and even some circles of the Left, that raising questions about the regime’s human record would weaken its position vis-à-vis American and Israeli threats.
As the current events have proved, Syria’s “resistance status” does not make it immune to popular anger. It can no longer, and should not have been allowed to, rely on its “resistance status” to justify, or get away with, violating the Syrian peoples’ rights.
The regime’s continued killing spree means that it may have well crossed the line of no return. Sure enough the protesters’ chants have changed from demands to “reform the regime” to “down the regime.”
The regime has exploited fears to warn of civil war if it collapses, and to foment sectarianism to maintain control. It has to be acknowledged, however, that there are outside forces who are fueling sectarianism in Syria. Egyptian Islamic sheikh and scholar Youssef Qardawi, who is also a close ally of the Emir of Qatar, has openly called on “the Sunni majority” to rise against “the Alawite minority” which has controlled the state institutions for decades.
Such calls appear to aim at mobilizing the Syrians, especially the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, against the regime to ensure its downfall. Such mobilization along sectarian lines, needless to say, carries great dangers but mainly reflects the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to ride the popular wave and topple the regime.
Israeli officials have also expressed concern of a regime change, fearing the unknown that could disrupt the quiet in the occupied Golan Heights and at the frontiers with its “enemy.” It is not a coincidence that this year, for the first time, Syria allowed Palestinians to march towards the borders in commemoration of the Nakba anniversary. It was a sign that the regime is trying to recover or gain some credibility as a confrontational state.
The situation in Syria is very serious and worrying. The regime is obviously not ready to give in. What is clear is that it is the multiple security and intelligence agencies who run the country. They understand that they will be first to go if the uprising succeeds, thus they are not ready to allow a real national dialogue or genuine reforms. I was told by a politician that the Syrian leadership decided that both regimes in Tunis and Egypt made a grave mistake by not “using the army to crush the protests right from the very beginning.” It is astonishing that this has been the lesson that those in power in Syria have drawn from the successes of popular revolts in Tunis and Egypt.
It is not clear if Bashar Al Assad even has enough power to do anything. But he is ultimately to blame for allowing the security agencies to continue to hold the grip on the political system and not undertaking serious reforms during his years in power. With that said, I think the US will be ready to get rid of Assad if they can control the process of regime change in Syria. The Obama administration might consider that.
However, I predict more violence in Syria and the possibility of civil strife triggered by the regime’s continued attempts to crush the people’s will. The Syrian people have shown amazing determination and bravery while the regime has lost all legitimacy.
NBF: If we take a look at Palestine for a moment, the uprisings across the region look very much like the first Palestinian intifada—people effectively shutting down their cities, going out into the streets, throwing stones, demanding that change happen. How likely is it that an uprising on this level will erupt at this moment in Palestine?
LA: There is no doubt that the Palestinian intifadas have become a model of protests for the Arab people during the Arab Spring. In Egypt in particular the movements that carried out the protests are rooted in the solidarity movements with the second Palestinian uprising.
But the situation is Palestine is complex. Palestinians have been reeling from the ruthless Israeli clampdowns and invasions during the second intifada. It is not that they have lost courage and stamina, but they have been pondering new forms of resistance—mostly away from the militarization that occurred during the second intifada—to guarantee the durability of an uprising.
Furthermore, the division between Fatah and Hamas has had a huge toll on Palestinian society. It is true that people have lost faith in the Palestinian Authority (PA) and consequently Fatah—but they have also been disappointed in the Hamas rule in Gaza.
The division has discouraged many people from directing their wrath against the PA or even Hamas, for fear of Palestinian infighting that they have been trying to avoid. Instead, various youth movements called for national unity.
I think the Palestinians will challenge the policies of the PA—including including its long-term security cooperation with Israel—by escalating forms of resistance against the Israeli occupiers. Such escalation would place the PA in a corner, where it will be forced to either yield or leave. We are not seeing a full-scale battle yet, but we are witnessing a gradual widening of the popular resistance. New forms of resistance are emerging through arts, culture, and boycott campaigns.
The first two intifadas were the result of a cumulative effect of escalating and broadening different forms of resistance. For an intifada to take place, there is necessity for both a pivotal event that serves as a catalyst and a wide engagement of Palestinians in daily resistance.
I am sure that Israeli actions will trigger a popular outburst. The intifada is coming, but this time Palestinians have to be really prepared. For many reasons it will be a bigger challenge to sustain an intifada, but if we succeed, it may be the most crucial uprising.
Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist covering the Middle East for over 20 years. She has worked for several Arab and Western publications and media outlets, most recently as a Middle East editor at Al Jazeera TV.
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a journalist, writer, and radio producer. She is a staff reporter and editor with The Electronic Intifada, and her work appears in Al Jazeera English, Truthout.org, Inter Press Service, and other outlets. She has been reporting from Palestine since 2004.