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Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University.
Arab instability and US strategy
Washington's assumption that dictatorships breed stability has been fundamentally challenged by the past year's events.
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2012 14:02
While the Saudi Crown Prince greeted Mohammed Morsi upon his arrival in Jeddah, he left the country alone [AFP]


A year and a half into what US media and officials began to refer to as the "Arab Spring",  there has been little democracy achieved across Arab countries, even in those countries that saw the overthrow of their despotic US-supported regimes. The main change in the region has been its loss of regime stability and a new instability that reflects negatively on imperial capital investment and the overall imperial strategy in the region.

This is not to say that, despite its initial fumbling, US imperialism has not since been able to capture many of the threads of the new political game in the region and control them - it is that it no longer controls all the threads. This lack of full control means that Washington has therefore been unable to restore stability, which, in US terms, is defined as dictatorial regimes that are staffed by obedient servants to American diktat and its junior partner in the region, the Jewish settler-colony.

Instability without democracy

In Yemen, the US has become the new direct absolute ruler of the country, no longer ruling through a dictator agent. They are killing and maiming Yemenis at will under the pretext of fighting the terror of al-Qaeda, which did not even exist in Yemen before the United States decided to intervene in that impoverished country. The terror that US forces and their ambassador Gerald Feierstein have imposed on the country has been the major achievement of the Obama administration since the Arab revolts started in January 2011. The other Arab country where the US commands immense control is Bahrain, though all attempts by the Bahraini dictatorship, the Saudi mercenaries - reportedly aided by US and British military and security support and consultation - to crush the revolt have been valiantly resisted by a fearless oppressed population.

"Saudis floated the proposition in May to annex Bahrain altogether to the Kingdom and transform it demographically, and thus be done with the whole affair of a majority of Shia being oppressed by a sectarian Sunni monarchy."

While regional and imperial capital is abandoning Bahrain slowly to neighbouring Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, with the mass exodus of the expatriate community, US military presence, not to mention the hegemony of Saudi mercenaries, has intensified. Indeed, the Saudis floated the proposition in May to annex Bahrain altogether to the kingdom and transform it demographically, and thus be done with the whole affair of a majority of Shia being oppressed by a sectarian Sunni monarchy.

In their ongoing revolt, Saudis in the Qatif and Al-Ahsa' regions have responded to this proposal in the past few days - demanding that, in defiance of Saudi despotism and its imperial designs on Bahrain, that they secede from Saudi Arabia and be reunified with Bahrain, of which they had been part before the Saudi state took them over.

In Libya, the instability has been legion, except in the oil sector, a situation that parallels that of Iraq nine years after the US-led invasion and occupation of the country. The recent Libyan elections have confirmed NATO's man in power, Mahmoud Jibril, though his ability to control the country (the oil fields, which are in NATO hands, excepted) is next to nil. As for the Qatari-Saudi election competition in Tunisia and Egypt (Saudis support the forces of the anciens regime and the Salafists, while Qatar supports the Muslim Brothers), the Qataris won hands down, though the Saudis are imposing their conditions.

US officials, as expected, play all sides, allying both with the military rulers of Egypt and with the Muslim Brothers, not to mention the liberal secular parties. In Tunisia, the instability of the new government has manifested in power struggles between the president and the prime minister, secular and salafi groups, and the repressive security apparatus and the protesting masses. The fumbling of the Ennahdha party is exposing its machinations to much critical scrutiny, most recently in the illegitimate granting of its leader Rashid al-Ghannushi, who is not an elected or appointed state official, a diplomatic passport against all conventions. To add insult to injury, this week, Tunisian state officials have insulted the mother of Muhammad Bouazizi, the first martyr of the Arab revolts, and arrested her for allegedly insulting a court official.

In Morocco, Jordan, and Oman, repression and co-option - the traditional imperially sponsored methods of control - continue apace with governments retaining the upper hand with varying levels of threats from different citizen groups. Except for the three cases of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the US are in agreement on strategy on how to deal with the revolts everywhere else (Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, and of course Yemen where differences were smoothed over with the removal of Abdullah Saleh and his replacement with US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein), including in Syria where, their unified short-term strategy is the overthrow of the Assad regime.

"In Tunisia, the instability of the new government has manifested in power struggles between the president and the prime minister, secular and salafi groups, and the repressive security apparatus and the protesting masses."

Disagreement continues on how to deal with the Palestinian Authority. Al Jazeera's recent investigation suggested the death of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat may have been due to the highly radioactive element polonium. This, in turn, has fuelled extant widespread belief that his death came as the result of a collaborative plot between Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials. This will add to the destablisation of the PA - which seems to be going bankrupt, despite Israel's maximal efforts to secure IMF loans on its behalf, efforts which proved fruitless.

Qatar might be happy to see the PA go under, while the US and the Israelis (and the Saudis) would not. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas has rushed to Saudi Arabia to beg for money to keep the PA afloat.  

US strategy

None of this bodes well for US capital or strategy. True, the most important aspect of all American strategies in the region is open access to, and cheap prices of, oil - as well as encouraging friction between the countries of the region, to justify the expenditure of their oil profits on the very US-made weapons that none of these countries would be able to use effectively - all while subsidising the American war industry. Indeed, Washington does not look askance on rivalries between Oman and the United Arab Emirates, or Oman and Saudi Arabia, much less Yemen and Saudi Arabia, or even Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as long as none of these develop into actual military confrontations. The latter is reserved as a possibility with all these states combined (as well as Kuwait and Bahrain) against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In that arena, nothing has changed, though the internal "instability" in Bahrain, Oman and the eastern Saudi region have been worrisome, US officials (with the Israelis cheering on, and often leading the effort) have countered with a heightened campaign against Iran, the only country of the three regional oil-producing giants (the others being Iraq and Saudi Arabia) that remains outside the US orbit of full control.

"Rumours of the Qataris suggesting they could rent the Suez Canal, though denied, were meant to reassure US officials even further that the 'Arab Spring' ... would not be detrimental to US interests - not realising that stability is what guarantees US interests, not revolt."

That the sectarian regimes ruling the Gulf identify the revolting masses in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as Shia and as Ibadis in Oman (since the Omani Sultan is also Ibadi, the Saudis are highlighting the alleged oppression of Sunnis in the country) has eased the link US officials and the Gulf leaders are making between the so-called Iranian threat and local revolts, thus justifying more massive weapons purchases and cheaper oil prices, ensuring the success of US policy goals.

Iraqi oil and the governing structure of the country continue to be under US tutelage. This, coupled with the swift transfer of control of Libya's oil fields to European powers, have maintained stability for the foreseeable future. Rumours of the Qataris suggesting they could rent the Suez Canal, though denied, were meant to reassure US officials even further that the "Arab Spring", a good part of which has been co-sponsored by Qatar, would not be detrimental to US interests - not realising that stability is what guarantees US interests, not revolt. The Qataris advise patience and argue that the region will stabilise once the new Western and Gulf-friendly Islamist regimes take over and spread the economic pie to include Islamist businessmen and women - and it will then be business as usual for the US soon thereafter.

Egypt

The recent showdown between Muhammad Morsi, the president of Egypt, the judiciary, the army brass, and the US is perhaps the hottest contest at the moment. Washington is said to have encouraged the newly elected Egyptian president to challenge the judiciary and the military brass for dissolving the elected parliament. His hasty move to do so, however, backfired and he had to retract after being threatened by the country's judiciary, whose members were appointed by Mubarak.

The recent US move to support the Muslim Brothers and dump the military council as a major ally is due to Washington's realisation that the army generals would no longer be able to serve US interests by bringing stability back to Egypt. Popular opposition to them is so uniform that, short of massive Syrian-style repression, which would likely bring about a more massive revolt than stability, they would not be able to survive much longer.

In contrast, US officials had reportedly obtained reassurances and promises from Khayrat al-Shatir, a leader of neoliberal Muslim Brothers and a multi-millionaire, that the Brotherhood would be better neoliberal allies of US capital and Middle East strategy than Mubarak had been. The Qataris continuously vouch to the Americans for the Muslim Brothers' readiness to serve US interests. It is this situation that has made the possibility of a coup d’état by the military against President Morsi less likely, as US officials are headstrong against it - not because of any American distaste for dictatorship (God forbid), but due to the new strategic analysis that a coup would not restore stability, but rather increase instability.

The Generals, however, are intent on proving to Washington that it has bet on the wrong horse by endorsing the Brothers, which is why they have adopted a strategy to effectively weaken the new president by limiting his powers and depriving him of a parliament, while the liberals in the country have not only supported the politically motivated judiciary's dissolution of the elected parliament (a curious position for liberal democrats anywhere in the world, but one that does not raise eyebrows among Egypt's Brothers-phobic, if not outright Islamophobic, liberals), but also one member of their ranks, millionaire industrialist Mamduh Hamza, called on the army to stage a coup against the elected president.

"US officials had reportedly obtained reassurances and promises from Khayrat al-Shatir, a leader of neoliberal Muslim Brothers and a multi-millionaire, that the Brotherhood would be better neoliberal allies of US capital and Middle East strategy than Mubarak had been."

As is part of their overall strategy in the region, the Americans continue their close relations with the Generals and with the liberals in the country, despite their strong tilt towards the Brotherhood. That the Saudis invited President Morsi to interrupt his work and visit them, offering them full obeisance (though they opposed his candidacy), and that he actually did so obsequiously and was badly treated during the visit, is in line with the Muslim Brothers' subservience and connivance with the Saudis since the 1950s.

Old alliances

To remind the Muslim Brothers who is boss, Saudi newspapers unearthed a picture a week ago showing Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna kissing the hand of King Abd al-Aziz in submission in the 1940s. Indeed, Morsi's reception in Saudi Arabia was humiliating. While the newly minted Saudi crown prince (but not the king) received Morsi at the airport, neither accompanied him to the airport to bid him farewell. Whereas Morsi could end up being his own man, his enemies insist that he is the front man for al-Shatir. If so, whatever advice Morsi is getting has not been good advice. His two major decisions - to challenge the Military Council and to visit Saudi Arabia - have backfired.

The outcome of all this for the future of Egypt remains unclear and uncertain, as while Washington continues to play all sides and control many of the threads, they remain unable to establish full control, though they are less panicky today than they were on the eve of the fall of Mubarak or in its immediate wake. The big players, besides the Americans, remain the army generals, followed by the Muslim Brothers backed by Qatar, and the Saudis, the traditional supporters of the Mubarak regime.

"To remind the Muslim Brothers who is boss, Saudi newspapers unearthed a picture a week ago showing Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna kissing the hand of King Abd al-Aziz in submission in the 1940s."

US officials are uncertain as to where this course of events will take the region. The Jordanian situation is tied up with Egypt, Syria, the West Bank, Iraq and the rest of the Gulf, and remains most volatile among the still "stable" monarchical regimes, alongside Oman. The recent massive demonstrations in Sudan aim to weaken the despotic rule of Omar al-Bashir who came to power in a coup against Sudanese democracy in 1989 (and whose relations with the US soured in the 1990s), but so far he has dealt with the demonstrators as violently as the Saudis are dealing with their own uprising.

The Americans remain committed not to "democracy" but to stability, a strategy identified by US academic and government consultant Samuel P Huntington in his classic academic book of 1968 on the importance of political order and stability in the changing Third World for imperial interests. That democracy is seen as inherently unstable and dictatorship as ensuring stability is no longer a viable course of action for members of the US administration, though they are still undecided on whether this understanding should be abandoned in some countries while maintained in others. Whereas the region continues to lack the democracy for which its people have been fighting for more than a century, despite the "Arab Spring" and the regime changes it elicited, the main achievement of the uprisings has so far been an instability that could end up changing the strategic rules of the game that the United States introduced to the region after World War II. And that is good news for the Arab peoples. 

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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