View from the Middle East: Bad week for the Empire; bad week for the struggle
Throughout the Arab World, the week of April 4th was a bad week for the Empire. While the US press shifted much of its focus to the American budget crisis, the media here in the Middle East concentrated largely on the serious setbacks to the US in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. And the regional resistance to the Empire also had a bad week, especially in Egypt. But when we separate the wheat from the chaff in the week’s developments, we can begin to see an overall pattern. That pattern reinforces the thesis that the West is developing a new strategy in attempting to control this region, one rather different from the Bush strategy–but also more sinister: that is, appearing to support progressive change in a select, few countries, while behind the scenes jockeying to keep things exactly as they have always been.
For those opposed to the imperialist agenda, it is crucial to recognize the nature of this evolving strategy, so as not to fall prey to the Empire’s new propaganda war. The past week shows particularly clearly both the nature of the Empire’s current weaknesses, and how the new imperial strategy works.
Setbacks for the West
First, the setbacks. In early April, the cracks already apparent in the West’s foundation in the region widened another notch. In Afghanistan, the spontaneous, anti-US protests that began April 1st with the killing of seven UN employees continued throughout the week, spreading from Kabul to most of Kandahar province. Meanwhile, the Brookings Institute published figures showing that in the first three months of 2011, the number of weekly attacks on Western forces had more than doubled since the same period in 2009 (an average 550 per week, up from 200 in 2009; and from 380 in 2010). So much for “winning the war.”
In Iraq, the unrest sweeping the rest of the region once again flared up in Iraq (which was supposed to be, by now, America’s stronghold in the region, remember?). Thousands of people demonstrated in Baghdad against the US occupation after the US Secretary of Defense finally stated officially (as most of us have long expected he would) that US troops might stay in Iraq after all, past the promised withdrawal date of the end of the year. In an even more significant development, one of the West’s many nemeses, Moktada al-Sadr, surfaced publicly once again, declaring that if the US did not leave on schedule, Sadr’s Mehdi Army would be reconstituted, and would force the occupier out. Rousing cheers from his supporters and, you can be sure, nervous glances from US diplomats.
In Yemen, the daily demonstrations against the Yemini regime continued, and on Friday, 100,000 people marched to protest the deaths of protesters the previous week at the hands of police and to again demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the first time, tanks surrounded the presidential palace, a sure sign that the days of the US-backed president are numbered. And after more than 11 weeks of increasingly violent confrontations throughout the country, the US has finally begun to recognize the inevitable and look for ways to ease the dictator out (while of course continuing to maintain a regime controlled by the West). This is going to be a particularly dangerous maneuver for the US–and will be one worth watching.
Finally, in Libya, US and NATO warplanes fired no less than three times (mistakenly, we are told) on the rebel forces they are supposedly defending, causing several deaths. Worse yet for the US, a rebel spokesman described NATO’s involvement in the conflict as worse than useless for the resistance, and Al Jazeera reported one young fighter who had experienced fire from NATO planes as saying, “NATO are liars. They are siding with Gaddafi!” Not the language one would hope for from a supposed ally.
Bad week for the struggle
What of the popular resistance? The turmoil that has inflamed North Africa and the Middle East since the beginning of the year can only be described as a regional rebellion against the Empire–probably the most massive mutiny in the history of the region. Disjointed, uncoordinated, largely leaderless and without, as yet, any specific, political direction, the protests that are sweeping the region nevertheless have a common theme: they represent a revolt of the working classes against powerful local elites backed for decades by the West.
The essentially anti-imperialist nature of this struggle is only beginning to dawn on many of the protesters. However this larger dimension of the struggles becomes more apparent when the resistance faces a serious setback, as happened this week in Cairo. Indeed, the events of Saturday, April 10, show more clearly than anything yet where imperialism is headed in its attempts to deal with the challenge to its regional hegemony.
The turn for the worse for the Egyptian resistance occurred early Saturday morning, April 10. On Friday, tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in Tahrir Square in one of the largest demonstrations since Mubarak was forced from office, February 11. The protesters were demanding the prosecution under Egyptian law of Hosni Mubarak and high-ranking officials of his regime who have so far been immune from any accountability for crimes committed during the Mubarak presidency.
Significantly, the protesters were joined by about 20 army officers, who were enthusiastically welcomed by the demonstrators. The demonstration continued without incident throughout most of the night.
Suddenly, about 3 a.m. Tahrir Square was stormed by the Egyptian military, who some observers said outnumbered the protesters. As the soldiers attempted to seize the demonstrating army officers,
civilians surrounded the latter, attempting to protect the officers from being captured. This attempt failed, the officers were beaten and taken away, and the demonstration violently disbanded. The officers have not been heard from since.
The significance of the April 10 Cairo incident
In the blur of daily protests and repression throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the events in Tahrir Square, April 10, stand out as a particularly significant turning point.
Fast rewind to late January and early February, 2011. Remember those enormous demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the army standing by, watching? Intervening only rarely and minimally, allowing the momentum of the protest to take its course? Remember Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama beginning to insist, more and more firmly, that Hosni Mubarak step down? Remember the Egyptian army removing Mubarak from the presidential palace by helicopter in the small hours of the morning, February 11? And the joy of the people the next day, when it was announced that the dictator was gone?
There was indeed a lot to celebrate: for the first time in recorded Egyptian history–a history that goes back to the pharaohs–the Egyptian people had confronted the Empire of the time, and forced a political change.
But on that day of jubilation, what struck me the most was a quiet statement by Robert Gates (I believe to CNN) that the conduct of the Egyptian military had been, I think his word was, “exemplary”. Then he explained: “They have done everything that we have indicated that we umm hoped they would do.” What a delicate choice of words. By “hoped” he of course really meant: “They have done everything that we told them they had better do!” Recipients from the US of $1.5 billion a year in military aid, the Egyptian military knew very well who was calling the shots. In other words, the United States colluded totally in the removal of Hosni Mubarak.
So was the US for once really backing the people? Hardly. From events on the ground in Cairo, April 10, the strategy behind America’s temporary support for the popular resistance, and its forced removal of Mubarak, are now fully transparent. This strategy could be summed up in what is undoubtedly now the new dictum: “Ride the back of the resistance so as to appear to be with the people–until the time is ripe to regain control. Make drastic changes, where necessary: so as to leave thing exactly… as they were.”
Indeed, a change of leadership is not regime change, and the events in Tahrir Square April 10 show that very little has changed in Egypt. The state of emergency is still in effect, regime criminals have not been questioned, let alone prosecuted, demonstrators have again been told to clear Tahrir Square or face reprisals, and the previously neutral army is now assuming the role of Mubarak’s hated police. And whether or not the promised elections will be genuine or yet another sham remains to be seen.
Yet in spite of this setback for the demonstrators, Egypt has, in fact, changed in two ways. First, the working class has seen first-hand the tremendous power of organized resistance. And secondly, the class nature of this conflict is becoming more apparent by the day. The new round of repression and resistance that is probably just beginning will only serve to highlight even more clearly this fundamental fact.
It is of course impossible to foresee the direction the conflict in Egypt will take in the coming months, to predict whether a true revolution will take place, or to know whether or not the current movement for change will get co-opted by non-progressive forces. But genuine revolutions typically begin with the development among the oppressed of an increasingly clear class consciousness. That process is already in motion in Egypt, and the real struggle for power is just beginning. As that struggle continues, it would be unwise for anyone, particularly for the West, to underestimate the potential power of the Arab Street.