Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale explain the changing international alliances in Middle Eastern politics, and how this is connected to rising Islamophobia in Europe.
In most of Europe and North America now there is only one acceptable form of racism: prejudice against Muslims. This is recent. Until 1978 in most of Europe and North America Muslims were often discriminated against because they were Asian, or Arabs, or people of colour. But in the US, Britain and many other countries they were not singled out for their religion.
This began to change after the humiliation of the United States by the Iranian revolution. That revolution gave heart to a variety of Islamist movements that challenged American dominance in the Middle East. In response, for a generation there was a steady demonisation of Islam by media and governments in the West.
Then came the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was hard to justify these wars to Americans and Europeans. Almost everyone thought that these were wars for oil. Even the American soldiers thought that. So Islamophobia was encouraged from the top down to justify these wars.
Now the US and European powers have returned to Iraq to bomb again. By now prejudice against Muslims has become generally acceptable in public in Europe and America, even on much of the left. And it comes with a twist that looks feminist, but is actually reactionary.
However, many Europeans find it difficult to know what to think about events in the Middle East. This is because politics there is changing in confusing ways. There is a new grand alliance in the Middle East between the governments of the US, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. This new grand alliance is repressing, or waging war on, various different kinds of Islamist movements in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
This is confusing for many people. Until very recently, many of these countries had been known to be enemies for many years. Syria and Israel were said to be enemies. The US and Iran were supposed to be enemies. So were Russia and the US, Israel and Iran, and so on.
That was then. This is now.
Old certainties and loyalties suddenly mean nothing. For those of us who hoped for a new dawn with the Arab Spring, they are also heart breaking. Betrayals and cruelty abound.
To make sense of these new alliances, we have to go back before the Arab Spring.
Before the Arab Spring
Before 2011, the Middle East was dominated by long standing dictatorships. In the central ring, there were:
Morocco, since 1965
Tunisia, since 1987
Algeria, since 1965
Libya, since 1969
Egypt, since 1952
Sudan, since 1989
Yemen, since 1994
Saudi Arabia, since 1932
The Gulf States, since 1971
Kuwait, since 1961
Syria, since 1971
Jordan, since 1946
Iran, since 1953
Before all these dictatorships was colonialism, another kind of dictatorship.
The exceptions were Lebanon and Turkey, which did have democratic elections.
Israel had elections for Israeli Jews and Arabs, but not for Palestinians in the occupied territories, and six million Jews had a dictatorship over six million Arabs.
There was a spectrum of cruelty. Algeria and Syria were the most frightening places for their citizens, while people in Kuwait and Iran had some real freedoms. But all the dictatorships did several things. They held in place great economic inequality with fear and torture. They reserved the oil wealth of the region for a small minority. They kept the price of oil low, which made their people poorer, and made North America, Europe and Japan richer. And by 2011, all these dictatorships except Iran were clients of the United States.
These regimes had to be so cruel to keep down opposition. They were hated by most of the population, particularly the poorer people – workers, peasants, small traders and immigrant workers who suffered most.
These were not poor countries, but they were desperately unequal. Then came 2008 and austerity on top of neoliberalism. People grew angrier.
The Arab spring began when protests in Tunisia brought down the dictatorship in late 2010. The Egyptian people took heart. In January 2011 demonstrations began in Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo, and the Mubarak dictatorship fell 18 days later. Protests and uprisings centered on city squares spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and parts of Saudi Arabia.
This was an Arab revolt that threatened dictatorship and repression throughout the region. But the example spread much further. Mass occupations of city squares challenged governments in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, and Spain. Many people saw other movements, like the strikes in Greece, the Walk to Work protests in Uganda, and the long student strike in Quebec as part of the same upheaval. And Occupy Wall Street bought the movement to America.
Government Reactions to the Arab Spring
Governments across the region and beyond were threatened by the Arab Spring, and they reacted to protect their power.
The Russian and Chinese governments have reasons to fear and hate both movements of Muslims and uprisings in the squares. Russia has fought more than one war against Muslims in the south of Russia itself, and lost a long war in Afghanistan to the Mujahedin resistance. Moscow fears unrest in the Muslim republics in Central Asia. And there have been movements in the squares in Moscow and Kiev.
China has serious lasting unrest among the Muslims of western China. And the Tiananmen protest in 1989 was the mother of all occupations of public squares. That remains the nightmare of the Chinese ruling class.
The Iranian government had recently defeated a revolt from below, the ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009-2010, which resembled the Arab Spring in many ways.
The hostility to the Arab Spring of the dictatorships in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia needs no explanation.
The American position was more complicated. The Arab spring threatened American backed dictatorships and American domination over Middle Eastern oil, and it was encouraging revolt across the world. So the American ruling class feared the Arab Spring.
But from 2011 to 2013 Washington pursued a complex strategy. They wanted an end to uprisings, but they also thought the uprisings might win. And if the uprisings won, Washington wanted to be friends with the new governments, and re-establish old alliances.
Crucially, the US could not simply invade any more Middle Eastern countries. After the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq the American people were not going to accept that. Enlisted military personnel and their families were particularly opposed to new wars.
So Washington tried to surf the wave. In Libya they bombed the dictator Gaddafi’s forces in support of the the uprising. In Yemen the American embassy brokered a deal where the dictator would leave but the rest of the old regime would survive. In the Gulf, Washington backed a Saudi army that invaded to put down the occupations and marches in Bahrain.
On the other hand, Washington told the Egyptian military to allow democracy. As soon as there were elections, Egyptians voted for a government of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party. They did so because the Brotherhood promised a more equal society, and for a generation had long been the main underground opposition to the dictatorship. Washington then tried to work with the Brotherhood.
The uprising was most bitter in Syria, where the regime was most repressive. When Syrians demonstrated, the soldiers were ordered to fire on the crowd. If the soldiers refused, their officers shot them. So the soldiers began to desert in large numbers. Civil war ensued.
Outside powers took different sides in Syria.
The Iranian and Soviet government backed Assad’s regime in Syria with money, weapons and bombs. They dreaded a successful uprising against dictatorhip. Iran and Assad had long backed the Hizbollah Shia militia in Lebanon. Now Iran and Assad called in the debt. Hizbollah militia units arrived to fight for Assad.
But Saudi Arabia had long feared Iranian domination in the Gulf, and Iranian encouragement of revolt by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia itself. So Saudi Arabia, and various small gulf states, backed various right wing Sunni Islamist rebel groups against Assad’s Syrian government.
The US sat on the fence. Washington expected the Assad regime would fall, and they wanted to be friends with the victors. But Washington also feared the Islamists among the resistance. So the US kept saying they would help with arms and bombing, but did nothing.
The result was a stalemate and bloodbath, with 200,000 dead, over 200,000 in Assad’s prisons, and at least 8 million driven from their homes. This was entirely acceptable to all outside parties – the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, and Iran. It was useful to them that Syria became an example of the terrible things that could happen when people dared to make a revolution.
Then, on 30 June 2013, General Sisi led a military coup in Egypt, and everything changed. Sisi is running a classic military dictatorship. The army and police have broken the movement of Tahrir Square, the heart of the Arab Spring. The streets have been cleared of demonstrators, with three thousand killed. At least 30,000 have been jailed, and large numbers have been tortured.
It is worse than Chile in 1973. But this time, across Europe, there is silence.
The governments of Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and Syria are strong allies of Sisi. But from others who might have been expected to criticise the persecution, there has been nothing. There has been no opposition from the governments of Iran, Russia and China. And Europe has followed the American lead and been silent on Sisi’s repression.
After the coup, the US government was no longer fearful of the Arab Spring. They did not have to ride two horses. Within three weeks of the coup the Syrian regime used poison gas against rebels. Obama had promised to bomb Syria if Assad did that. Instead, Obama backed down. He was already in secret talks with Iran.
Now the presidents of Iran and the US are each other’s new best friends. The Iranian regime expects a nuclear deal will soon end sanctions and make possible an economic boom.
The strongest force in the resistance to Assad in Syria is now the Islamic State, which occupies parts of both Syria and Iraq. Assad’s Syrian government is fighting the Islamic State. Together the US, Iran, France, and the UK bomb the territory of the Islamic State. American special forces, Iranian troops, Iraqi government militias and Kurdish peshmergas fight ISIS together on the ground.
Russia and China also back Iran, the US and Syria against ISIS.
Israel has been forbidden to attack Iran, but let off the leash in Palestine.
The Palestinians have long stood for resistance across the Arab world. The secular dictatorship of Fatah on the West Bank now does the will of the Israelis. But the elected Islamist government of Hamas in Gaza does not. In the summer of 2014, Israel bombed Gaza for seven weeks, killing 2,000.
Washington supported Netanyahu. In solidarity with Israel, Sisi in Egypt closed the border with Gaza, and the tunnels. This time Iran did not object. Nor did Russia or China. The governments of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia did and said nothing.
There are three alliances here – over Egypt, over Gaza, and over Syria and Iraq. But in practice all of these alliances interlock – as they must, or each would fall apart.
This grand alliance will not last forever. There are serious global divisions between the US and Russia, the US and China, and emerging between the US and Saudi Arabia. The long standing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have not gone away. But for the moment they stand united.
This is extraordinary. Why?
There is a simple explanation. They have come together to bury the memory and hope of the Arab Spring. It was a massive and inspiring popular movement. So it will take great cruelty, killing and repression to break the memory of it and the possibility of any resurgence. And each of the governments in the alliance has strong reasons for wanting to bury the Arab Spring very deeply indeed.
(The odd government out is Turkey. Erdoğan’s AKP government is moderate, neoliberal and Islamist. Before the AKP came to power, Turkey was dominated by a fiercely secular army, and saw a succession of military coups. Another coup in Turkey may not be possible. But Erdoğan and his ministers do not look favourably on anti-Islamist dictatorships gaining ground all around the region.)
The new grand alliance has targeted the three places that stood for the heart of the Arab spring. Egypt had been the most important movement. Syria had been the most bitter and bloody uprising. Gaza and Palestine had long symbolized resistance across the Arab world.
In each of these three places, these are also attacks on mass popular Islamist movements. In Egypt it is the Muslim Brotherhood. In Palestine it is Hamas.
Syria was different. The revolt that began in 2011 united a broad range of Islamist and secular groups in resistance, and mixed local alliances. But by 2014 ISIS, a right wing Islamist group, was the largest army opposed to the governments of Syria and Iraq.
This does not mean the secular left was unimportant. But it does mean that for a generation now Islamists have been the strongest force in mass movements against American power and against the dictatorships.
The new reality is tragic – especially for those of us on the left who took such courage from the Arab Spring. Many of us are tempted to deny even the reality of the new grand coalition. But reality is all we have, and must be faced.
In any case, it is utterly clear that the governments of the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran all believe the Islamists were the most powerful part of the Arab Spring. So the governments of the West frame their repression and bombing as a war between Western enlightenment, women’s rights and secularism, on the hand, and Islamist reaction, on the other. We all know that. That is what the TV and the papers tell us every day.
Meanwhile, every day, the armed forces of the United States and their allies bomb children, women and men in the Middle East.
Future posts in this series on Thinking about Feminism and Islam will cover the roots of ISIS, protecting Afghan women, and other topics.
Earlier posts in this series were:
Thinking about Feminism and Islam (1) on cultural racism and the veil
Thinking about Feminism and Islam (2) ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’ in Turkey
Related posts are:
ISIS, Sexual Violence and Killing Gay Men