In the Arab world, the West’s interests trump its values

Read the first part of chapter five of Marwan Bishara’s latest book, The Invisible Arab.

Egypt Protests 2
'The voice of the invisible Arab masses was always silenced by the ruling elites,' writes Bishara [EPA]

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions. You can also read an excerpt from the preface, from chapter one, L’Ancien Regime and from chapter two, The Miracle Generation.



Since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Western military and political interference has had a role in all major transformations in the Arab world and the region in general. After European colonialism redrew the fault lines and contours of the new Middle East and North African regions, the Cold War reshaped the region with the United States at the helm of interregional and even domestic affairs of most Arab countries. The United States, guided by imperial security doctrines, put itself centre-stage as the most powerful player in the Middle East.

Since 9/11, the US presence in the region reached a new summit, deepening regional divisions that threatened to further breakup of the Arab world and its states, as witnessed in Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia. During this period, Washington toppled regimes, made destabilising alliances with the worst human rights offenders, monopolised regional diplomatic processes, intervened in the domestic affairs of sovereign states, invaded unfriendly nations, and deployed the world’s greatest military in the name of US national security.

In turn, Arab leaders were forced to devise policies that put US reactions first. Historically, those who dared oppose Washington’s dictates paid heavily for it, either directly or by proxy. From Egypt’s Nasser to Iraq’s Hussein through Arafat in Palestine, all were defeated, sanctioned, or isolated. Most other dictators courted the West and selectively adopted the US’ neoliberal dictates while rejecting its democratic model.

By contrast, the Arab people rejected the US’ imperialist agenda – seen as another form of regional dictatorship – but admired its constitutional democracy and even the humble, middle-class notion of the “American dream”. More importantly, Arabs rooted for political and strategic independence and tended to unite around pan-Arab issues such as that of Palestine and Iraq. However, the voice of the invisible Arab masses was always silenced by the ruling elites.

By the end of 2010, the Arab world looked evermore stagnant, leaderless, polarised, and downtrodden. While it was clear where the blame lay, Arab dictators continued to outdo one another in appeasing the United States, as the latter folded them into its regional order. And the United States – after having looked at the region through the prisms of the “war on terror”, Israel, and oil – was completely oblivious to changes on the ground. However, that did not prevent Washington and its Western allies from claiming credit for the peaceful Arab revolutions.

Manufacturing a modern-day ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

The West has boasted of inspiring, supporting, and fighting for the success of the Arab revolutions. It was striking how some pundits credited President George W Bush’s “democracy agenda”, which his supporters claimed planted the seeds of change after he made the cause of democracy in the Middle East a US national security priority and vowed that the United States would do what it takes for the cause of liberty. According to Bush’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the demise of repressive dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere during the  Arab Spring stemmed, in part, from Bush’s “freedom agenda”. Rice claimed, “The change in the conversation about the Middle East, where people now routinely talk about democratisation, is something that I’m very grateful for, and I think we had a role in that.” Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney went further in an interview with Fox News by connecting the invasion of Iraq with the Arab Spring: “I think that what happened in Iraq, the fact that we brought democracy, if you will, and freedom to Iraq, has had a ripple effect on some of those other countries.”

Fellow neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued, “Today, everyone and his cousin supports the ‘freedom agenda’. Of course, yesterday it was just George W Bush, Tony Blair, and a band of neocons with unusual hypnotic powers who dared challenge the received wisdom of Arab exceptionalism.” More of the same was expressed by commentators such as CNN’s Fareed Zakariya, who said: “But give President George W Bush his due. He saw the problem, and he believed that Arabs were not genetically incapable of democracy, and he put America’s moral might behind the great cause of Arab reform.” This was echoed by the Economist in an article titled “Was George Bush right?” As Egypt erupts, his Arab “freedom agenda” is suddenly looking a little cleverer:

The Americans leant on Egypt to hold more open elections in 2005, and in 2006 they talked an astonished Israel into letting Hamas contest Palestinian elections in the occupied territories. Even the Saudis were prevailed on to hold some (men only) local elections. All this was based on the post 9/11 neoconservative conclusion that the root cause of terrorism was the absence of Arab democracy.

Clearly, the facts were irrelevant in this case. The Egyptian elections of 2005 and 2006 were rigged. The majority of the elected Hamas parliament members ended up in jail, and its government was toppled with the complicity of the Bush administration. The elections in Saudi Arabia were merely municipal and totally apolitical. The implementation of the “democracy agenda” was carried on the backs of tanks and aircraft carriers that destroyed Iraq, tore up its national fabric, inflamed hatreds, and ultimately, exacerbated anti-Americanism, while weakening the secular, liberal trend in the region and causing the death of at least one hundred thousand Iraqis.

Neither did it matter to America’s democratic credentials that during a 2004 visit by Ben Ali to the White House, Bush praised his guest as an ally in the war on terrorism, and praised Tunisia’s reforms on “press freedom” and for holding “free and competitive elections”. It was no secret President Bush was inspired by Russian immigrant Natan Sharansky, the author of The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. Sharansky served as a minister in the right-wing Ariel Sharon coalition government. The fine romance between Bush and Sharansky was widely covered in the Arab media, and so were Sharansky’s positions. He advocated what the late Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling termed as Sharon’s “politicide” – political genocide – the total destruction of the elected Palestinian authority and its institutions. Sharansky also opposed Bush’s own roadmap for peace and credited the Israeli military with exposing the Palestinians to “Israeli democracy”. Of course, when you factored in that Bush sincerely believed that Sharon was a “man of peace”, it all started to make sense. The Bush administration might have spoken of democratisation, but in reality Washington supported autocrats from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia under the guise of the same “national security” agenda.

Duplicitous Arab leaders expressed their loyalty and provided implicit and explicit support for Bush’s policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine in the context of its global “war on terror” in return for the United States not pressuring those countries to democratise. The failure of the “freedom agenda” to bring about freedom by way of war empowered the region’s autocrats, who exploited the carte blanche offered by the US’ war to crack down on their own political opposition. The Bush administration’s post-9/11 strategy of “taking the war to the enemy” plunged the region into awful bloodshed and – as the neoconservatives put it – a “constructive chaos” whose victims have been liberal and secular democrats, first and foremost. Perhaps the only inspiring thing to come out of Bush’s (democratic) war and occupation of Iraq was the symbolic but powerful action by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at the president during his last press conference in Baghdad.

Bush made massive policy blunders; his successor, President Barack Obama, however, has lacked any discernible policy. Many pundits credited Obama’s “non-interference strategy” and his “inspiring oratory” with the rise of youthful democratic movements. Some even cited Obama’s own journey from a black community organiser to president of the world’s only superpower as inspirational to a whole new generation of Arabs! President Obama’s three major speeches directed at the Arab and Muslim worlds were viewed as a departure from the Bush era, as well as an affirmation that Washington was ready to open a new chapter with the Arab and Muslim worlds on the basis of “mutual interest and mutual respect”. The Obama administration even leaked to the US press corps how it was in the midst of putting the final touches on its official democracy agenda for the Arab world.

Actually, the Obama administration has been engaging in pragmatic policies toward Arab autocrats in the hope of ensuring more regional cooperation. The president’s visit to Egypt only six months before the revolution erupted was seen by Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prolific young blogger, as “a clear endorsement of President Hosni Mubarak, the ailing 81-year-old dictator who has ruled with martial law, secret police, and torture chambers. No words that Mr Obama will say can change this perception that Americans are supporting a dictator with their more than $1bn in annual aid”.

The pragmatic president, who visited Riyadh before Cairo, characterised Mubarak as a “stalwart ally” and commended the “wisdom and graciousness” of the Saudi monarch. This wasn’t lost on the Arab world. The Obama administration had, in fact, decided to reduce budgets marked for NGOs in the Arab world, foregoing even the appearance of supporting democracy in the region. Obama’s overtures to the Arab world came at a time when he was expanding the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan, extending the use of drone attacks on the likes of Yemen, even as he failed to pressure Israel into freezing its creeping settlement into the occupied Palestinian territories. By the time the Arab Spring began, Obama’s popularity was at its lowest among people in the region who had seen him as a promising statesman. At the outbreak of the Arab revolution, his administration made pathetic efforts to appear to be on the side of the Arab masses by selectively leaking reports to the media that were said to be a blueprint for democratisation in the Arab world.

Of course, there was always room for the American lone star, a hidden hero. The New York Times unearthed Gene Sharp, an 85-year-old professor, from his modest Boston home to credit him for the Egyptian revolution. Sharp had authored a three-volume work called The Politics of Nonviolent Action based on his doctoral thesis, which he’d been preaching at special seminars. I remember reading his work as a student during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and finding it interesting. But crediting Sharp with such sweeping change in Egypt was particularly insulting to Arab intelligence, especially since the Arabs who filled the streets of the Arab world never heard of the American’s playbook. One commentator criticised the New York Times for inventing a “new Lawrence of Arabia”. Yet the newspaper persisted, publishing a follow-up article underlining the role of the American professor who, paradoxically, sounded less enthusiastic than the paper about his role.

Dictator-friendly Europe

The United States wasn’t alone, though, in its ambivalence toward the Arab dictators. European powers, perhaps more so. Europe’s accommodation and embrace of Arab dictators had little to do with so-called European values and had more to do with classic European expediency and neocolonial paternalism. In 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy commended Ben Ali for the improved “sphere of liberties” at a time when human rights abuses were rampant in Tunisia. In one instance the same year, at least two hundred people were prosecuted after protests in the southern mining town of Redhayef, according to Human Rights Watch. Tunisian human rights groups rejected Sarkozy’s utterance as a betrayal of all that France stood for, in theory at least. But France was Tunisia’s leading trade partner and its fourth-largest foreign investor. When certain European officials did criticise Ben Ali’s human rights record, they simultaneously praised his economic performance.

That European business and Arab policy have always been happy bedfellows was made clear when British Prime Minister Tony Blair brought Gaddafi out from the diplomatic cold in 2003. Blair appointed MI6 counter-terrorism chief Mark Allen to lead secret talks with Libya. The deal they thrashed out paved the way for normalisation of relations with Gaddafi that allowed for lucrative deals to follow for British, Italian, and American oil companies. In exchange, Gaddafi paid $10m each to the families of the 270 people who perished in the bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland. Gaddafi also renounced his nuclear development programme. Allen, who would be knighted shortly after, went on to advise British Petroleum, negotiating oil deals in Libya. BP, not the British government, dictated policy when problems emerged between the two countries, particularly over the status of the Libyan convicted and imprisoned for the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. His continued imprisonment was complicating a $900m deal BP was trying to make with Libya. Jack Straw, the foreign minister at the time, admitted it was BP calling the shots. “Yes, a very big part. I’m unapologetic about that.”

Nobody embraced the Libyan dictator like the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Gaddafi pitched his tent in the gardens of Rome’s most prestigious villa, and their relationship was cemented by the Green Stream natural gas pipeline that allowed Libya to overtake Saudi Arabia as Europe’s third-largest energy supplier. Berlusconi bragged that his greatest foreign policy achievement was the friendship treaty he signed with Gaddafi.

In a rather frank admission, foreign minister Franco Frattini told me: “All the Western countries used to accommodate themselves on partnerships of convenience instead of partnerships of coexistence and sharing values including President Sarkozy receiving Gaddafi with all the honours to the Élysée in Paris. This was the mistake made by the West.” The same was underlined by the head of the Italian senate: “Spain has Morocco, France has Tunisia. We have Libya, and others are more prominent in Egypt.” The only reprimand for this farcical policy came from an unlikely quarter. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told me in the summer of 2011: “Personally I do believe that political leaders should be very careful in picking and choosing political friends and partners and always take into consideration our obligation to protect human rights and basic political liberties.”

Ballyhooing democracy, promoting business

The United States and Europe advanced similar imperial visions for the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. The United States hoped for “A New Middle East” around the vision of Shimon Peres (who, incidentally, wrote a book titled the same) that foresaw a leading role for the Jewish State of five million in a region of 250 million Arabs. Because the United States remained hostage to Israel’s continued occupation of Arab lands, this new Middle East never got off the ground. It soon became evident that President Clinton’s post-Cold War doctrine of “promoting democracy and opening markets” would be reduced to the latter. With the launch of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in 1995 in Barcelona, Europe aimed to create a security and prosperity zone that attempted to lock in Arab countries into an enduring multilateral partnership with Europe. When that failed, Sarkozy tried to repackage it in the framework of the “Union for the Mediterranean” in 2008 by taking human rights issues off the table. In both cases geopolitics overrode human rights, and economics triumphed democracy as Western powers closely embraced Israel and the Arab dictatorships.

Following the 9/11 attacks, American and European geopolitical priorities took precedence. The Arab and Muslim world were told to take sides. This, of course, was not the first or last time they were given an ultimatum. Since the United States took over from colonial European powers as the imperial power in the region, the peoples of the region were asked to choose between Washington and its choice of regional villain every decade or so. Egypt’s Nasser in the early 1960s, Arafat of Palestine in the early ’70s, Iran’s Ayatollah in early ’80s followed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the ’90s, and then al-Qaeda’s Bin Laden in 2001.

Ultimatums and false choices, however, are never a substitute for policy. Despite having been deeply involved in the region for decades, the United States has never had an Arab policy. As a people, Arabs have been completely absent from the US/Western agenda. Western leaders have obsessed over their economic interests and Israel’s security, leaving the Arabs at the receiving end of their aggression. They have dismissed Arab unity as a threatening fantasy and Islam as fertile ground for dangerous ideas. Arabs have been valued not for their embrace of freedom or respect for human rights, but rather in terms of their proximity to US interests. A subservient ally and energy-providing partner made for a good Arab regime, regardless of its despotic and theocratic rule. In short, Western leaders have talked in slogans and clichés about democracy and Islam, but have always been as indifferent to the people of the region as their dictators. The general impression in the region goes as follows: “The West sees the Arabs as anything but Arabs, and Muslim as no more than Muslims.”

Democracy has always been officially advanced as a US national interest; prêt-à-porter, from the shelves of the US State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its attendant NGOs, to be built on the ashes of national sovereignty. However, democracy advanced by strategic imperatives and prostituted by war soon proved to be a farce, as we saw during the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worse, on more than a few occasions, they’ve regretted their overzealous public relations ploy. Washington and its allies rejected the elections results in the case of the Islamic Front’s victory in Algeria or Hamas’s victory in Palestine, as well as when Hezbollah was able to establish a coalition government in Lebanon. Eventually, they were also disappointed by the results in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In reality, the Arabs could hardly trust US rhetoric on democracy, knowing all too well that truly representative governments would oppose the US-Israel axis. Countless US-commissioned polls underlined Arab antagonism to Washington’s designs on their region. Almost 80 per cent of the Arabs polled believed US military intervention increased terrorism and decreased the chances for peace, while almost 70 per cent doubted its sincerity in spreading democracy and reckoned it was motivated by an ambition for regional domination, while also preserving Israel’s. Paranoia? Imagine, if you like, if a coalition of Muslim nations were to invade and occupy Canada and Mexico, Americans in all likelihood would be furious.

Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. The above excerpt is from his latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, now available in bookstores.

Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara