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‘The genie is out of the bottle’

Assessing a changing Arab world with Noam Chomsky and Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara.

Massive public protests continue to sweep the Middle East and North Africa in countries including Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran – many being met with violent government crackdowns. Democracy Now! speaks to Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera English, and MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky.

“Perhaps the Arab moment has come,” Bishara says, “It’s clear that the genie is out of the bottle. I think change is coming to the Middle East, to the Arab world.” Bishara also discusses the “Palestine Papers,” the more than 1,600 secret documents that recorded Middle East peace talks between Israel, the Palestinian leadership and the US, which were leaked to Al Jazeera and published in January.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, a rolling rebellion continues to unfold across North [Africa] and the Middle East, often amid violent repression by state security forces. During an overnight raid in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, heavily armed riot police surrounded thousands of demonstrators who were sleeping in the central square in the nation’s capital. Without warning, police fired tear gas and concussion grenades into the crowd of pro-democracy activists that included women and children. The Associated Press reports four people were killed and hundreds beaten or suffocated by tear gas. Bahrain’s main Shia opposition group called the storming of the central square by police “real terrorism.”

Early this morning, Democracy Now! reached Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. He spoke to us from outside a hospital where the wounded were being treated. It is very hard to get through to people in Bahrain right now. Rajab’s cell phone connection was poor, so listen closely.

NABEEL RAJAB: The past two days, people were protesting in Pearl Square, tens of thousands of people, children, men and women, calling for reform and democracy and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, today, morning, at 3:00, 3:30 in the morning, the riot police and special forces attacked the protesters. And many of the protesters, as you know, are children and old men and women and young people. So, among those people, we have many, many injuries. At least two dead confirmed so far, but we expect to see more.

And I see many injuries coming. The people are protesting outside the main hospital, which is Salmaniya Hospital, and were attacked 15 minutes ago. And I see a lot of doctors going out of the main Bahrain hospital to treat people in the street, as there are no places to get them in. And many, many of them are inside, so there is not enough space for them. So doctors are treating the people in the street. And I could see the trolley beds of the hospital taken out to the street to carry as many people as possible.

A lot of people – now, this woman is shouting here beside me. She’s saying, “We need blood! We need blood!” because a lot of people have lost blood. And [inaudible] front of hospital, tens of thousands of people are standing. They want to make sure that their children are not dead. A lot of injured people are still in the scene in the Pearl [inaudible] but cannot be carried because the government, they stopped all the ambulance to go inside. They stopped all the people to go inside to carry the injured people. So, a lot of people don’t know about their kids, don’t know about their people, if they’re alive or dead. So people here around me are crying, they are shouting, they say, “We want to see our children!” They want to go inside the hospital. Doctors are banning them. They say, “You can’t go. A thousand of people inside the hospital.” People in the street are bleeding in the street, and some doctors are treating them.

Governments and international governments and all international organizations should voice – we need to hear their voice at this moment – countries like United States, countries like England and Europe. I know how my country is rich. I know why I’m victim of being a rich country, that the United States and other European countries don’t want to make them angry, because as their interests, economic interests, and oil is low. But yes, but there are human beings here. They want to live like your people in the United States. They want to see democracy. They want to see human rights. They want to see that. So, if Barack Obama could come out and speak about other countries like Egypt and Iran, so he could speak about Bahrain. Especially we have more dead people here than they had in Iran, that he should come out and speak and say to the Bahrain government, they should stop this. Barack Obama and the United States are a very influential country here. They are the big brother here. They are the people who could voice. They are the people who could speak. But so far, unfortunately, we have not seen any positive statement made by the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab speaking to us from Democracy Now! just after Bahrain security forces attacked a gathering of sleeping protesters last night, killing at least four people, injuring hundreds, among them an NBC reporter.

Meanwhile, in Libya, after hundreds protested across the country Wednesday, thousands more filled the streets today again in what’s being called a “Day of Rage.” Human rights observers say snipers on rooftops have killed as many as 13 protesters and wounded dozens more. The protests fall on the second anniversary of protests in Benghazi, where security forces killed several people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Yemen, two people were killed Wednesday when police opened fire on protesters in the southern city of Aden. At least four people were wounded in the capital Sana’a when student protesters clashed with supporters of US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In Iran, violence broke out Wednesday at the funeral of a student killed during an opposition protest earlier this week.

And in Iraq, state forces killed three people Wednesday after a large crowd rallied in the city of Kut over a lack of government services. Hundreds of protesters have gathered in the southern city of Basra today demanding the ouster of the local governor.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss these events, we’re joined by Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera and host and editor of the TV show Empire, and MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, author of, well, more than a hundred books, including, most recently, Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians, also Hopes and Prospects, both published by Haymarket Books.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Wonderful to have you both in our studio this week on this 15th anniversary week of Democracy Now!

Just a correction, it was an ABC News reporter, Miguel Marquez, not NBC, who was among those – you know?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I know Miguel.

AMY GOODMAN: You know him?


AMY GOODMAN: He was in Manama, in Bahrain, part of this rolling rebellion in the Middle East.

Noam, talk about the significance. I feel like we talked a revolution ago. We were speaking just as the rebellion was unfolding in Egypt, and that was just, what, 18 days ago.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Eighteen days ago, yeah. Well, it’s a startling event. I mean, I don’t think one can predict where it’s going, but it’s obviously creating at least the basis for major changes in the region. And for the moment, the regimes are more or less holding. So, in Tunisia and Egypt, it’s essentially the same regime without changes. But the public protests are so vibrant and energetic that it’s hard to believe they’re going to be able to hold.

Bahrain, which was just talked about, is a particularly sensitive place. As you mentioned, it hosts the US Fifth Fleet, the major fleet in the region. But also, it’s a majority Shiite country with a Sunni leadership. And right across on the mainland, the population in Saudi Arabia is also mainly Shiite, and Saudi Arabia has been concerned about them for years. It’s a repressed population. They’re concerned about possible influences from the Shiite regions nearby – Iran, southern Iraq – and also that happens to be where most of Saudi Arabian oil is. So it’s a very sensitive area.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been studying the Middle East, also traveling there for decades. Marwan Bishara, you live there. I think you don’t live in any one place, but for Al Jazeera, you travel the world. Talk about the significance of this.

MARWAN BISHARA: Well, I think we are living – I’m not sure if it’s a 1989 moment or something else, but certainly the Arab world has been quite delayed from those transformations that took place in Eastern Europe or, for that matter, in Latin America. And I think perhaps the Arab moment has come. It’s clear that the genie is out of the bottle. Now, some people, some cynics, would like to see it as a temporary uprising and everything will go back as it were. I don’t think so. I think change is coming to the Middle East, to the Arab world, in general. And in a sense, we know that the way back is not the way forward.

But what is the way forward exactly? As Professor Chomsky said, we’re not exactly sure. But certainly, it is a work in progress. And I’m not as skeptical as many that, although Ben Ali has gone in Tunisia and although Mubarak has gone in Egypt, that the Mubarak regime and the Ben Ali regime is going to stay. I think it’s a work in progress, and I think, sooner rather than later, we will see also the regimes being swept away after their symbols, their faces, have already been – have already left the scenes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you particularly about Saudi Arabia, the bastion of conservatism and authoritarianism in the region. Now Saudi Arabia is faced with Bahrain – explosion in Bahrain to its east, Yemen to its south, Egypt to its west, and basically all the countries around Saudi Arabia now are on fire. And the impact on the monarchy, and of course on US interests in the area – what do you think will be the impact within Saudi Arabia itself?

MARWAN BISHARA: I think the impact is going to differ from one country to another, but there’s a certain commonality to all of it. See, there is this thing that’s been absent in the mind of many, not only in Washington, but also in the US media. There is something called an Arab. There is an Arab nation. You can fly – you can take a seven-hour flight from Morocco to Iraq, passing through an Arab region that speaks the same language, that has the same heritage. But it has been invisible to American media and to American decision makers. We’ve seen the Arab world. We’ve seen Saudi Arabia, we’ve seen Bahrain, through the lenses of military strategy, oil, prisms of Israel, and certainly terrorism and jihad. But what we’ve seen over the last six weeks has been completely absence. And hence, it caught everyone by surprise. Everyone was caught in the headlights – What is going on? Who are these people? – not realizing that in places like Bahrain, places like Yemen, certainly Egypt, Tunisia and so on and so forth, a pent-up tension has been building up for years. This is not a new thing that’s gone on on Facebook. So, in Saudi Arabia, like in the rest of the Arab world, we’re going to see what has been building up for years. In Bahrain, they used to call it, for the last 30 years, attempts to topple the government, attempts to topple the regime. In fact, they were community organizers. They’re not exactly like Chicago; the risks are far higher in the Arab world. But these are community organizers in Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and other places, trying to live or trying to root for decent living, but always being called terrorists or always been oppressed under the pretext of terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Marwan Bishara, you just came back from Washington, D.C., where you were meeting with think tanks. What is your sense of the Washington consensus understanding versus what you are experiencing in the Middle East?

MARWAN BISHARA: You know, sometimes I forget exactly what are the concepts that are allowed on television or not, but let me just put it this way: they were caught with their pants down, completely. I mean, people in Washington, until today, have not realized exactly what is going on. They’re still trying to play catch-up with what’s going on in the Arab world.

So, for example, I was in one of those brainstorming sessions that tried to talk about what’s next for Palestine and Israel. And what amazes me is that everything that they speak about has an Israel reference to it, because that’s where the correspondents for their main networks are, that’s where their people are, and that’s how they’ve seen the region – Egypt, Palestine and so on – from Israel’s prisms. So, every point of reference is, what did Netanyahu say, or what does Israel think, what would the Israeli lobby consider. Would now, for example, President Obama do this and that, and will the Israeli lobby allow him? What does that mean for our strategic interests in the Middle East? Not understanding that there is a complete sweep that requires not only a change of mindset and, if you allow me here, a change of decision makers, perhaps, or a change of aides in Washington. There’s a complete class of bureaucrats in Washington that are not only not in touch with what’s going on in America, they certainly are not in touch with what’s going on in the Arab world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Noam Chomsky, I’d like you to follow up on that. The Times had an interesting article today, apparently an Obama administration leak, that the administration had – the President, for more than a year, had requested this study that predicted the possible outbreak of popular movements throughout the region – Samantha Power was involved in preparing this report – as if to say, “Well, we were on top of the situation, even though we weren’t. We knew that this was coming.” And your sense of to what degree Washington is able to respond or even is really aware of what’s going on in the region?

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s hard to believe that they’re not aware of it. I mean, you can read it in the newspapers. There have been demonstrations and protests going on for years. A big protest in 2005, you know, they keep being repressed, then there are more. In fact, the current wave of protests actually began last November in Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan rule after a brutal invasion and occupation. The Moroccan forces came in, carried out – destroyed tent cities, a lot of killed and wounded and so on. And then it spread. You have to be pretty – all the –

AMY GOODMAN: Western Sahara is hardly known about, the rebellion there and the occupation there.

NOAM CHOMSKY: It’s hardly known about, but that’s – I mean, it’s a major atrocity. It’s kind of like East Timor – in fact, pretty much the same, even the same time. But it’s blowing up. And also, they must read the studies of Arab public opinion. I mean, you can’t imagine an intelligence service that doesn’t read the regular studies by Western polling agencies of Arab public opinion. And if you look at them, you can see why democracy is such a frightening concept. The latest major study last August released by the Brookings Institute, so not very obscure, showed that almost nobody in the Arab world regards Iran as a threat – 10 percent. What they regard as a threat is the United States and Israel, like 80 and 90 per cent. In fact, a majority even favor Iran having nuclear weapons, to balance US-Israeli power, which is the real threat in the Arab world. You take a look at when they list people who are respected, Erdogan in Turkey is way up on top. Obama isn’t even listed. You know, you get down to Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, no Obama. Now, these are the opinions of people in the Arab world. What you said about the bureaucrats and the aides is absolutely correct. I mean, after all, there have been 60 years in which explicit policy, you know, in writing, has been – internal records – has been to disregard the Arab population, as long as they can be kept under control.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, is, perhaps, the reticence of the administration in the case of Egypt, let’s say, or right now in Bahrain, more geared to the fact that they know that public opinion and they understand that real democracy in the region would mean another Latin America, another region totally out of US ability to dominate?

NOAM CHOMSKY: I don’t talk to anybody in Washington, so I can only guess, but it is simply inconceivable that at least the intelligence services don’t go as far as reading polls that I can read.

Part two: The Palestine Papers

AMY GOODMAN: Before Marwan goes, we can’t not talk about the Palestine Papers, because Al Jazeera has released them, and you’re the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera. The Palestine Papers, the leaked documents obtained by Al Jazeera that show how Palestinian leaders offered sweeping concessions to Israel on a number of key issues but received little in return. The UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace, Robert Serry, has said the papers highlight the Israeli government’s rejection of serious negotiations in its attempt to retain control over the West Bank.

ROBERT SERRY: What you have seen is, in my view, an earnest, genuine Palestinian attempt to actually show readiness for a two-state solution, and maybe we haven’t seen that same readiness on the other side, given also the fact that all of what happened hasn’t led to an agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Robert Serry. Marwan Bishara, I want to have you explain the significance of this – it’s hardly talked about in the United States; we all know about the WikiLeaks documents, but not the Palestine Papers – and again, get Professor Chomsky to respond.

MARWAN BISHARA: Well, look, it’s very simple. There’s been this notion for the last 20 years that, from Arafat onwards, that the Palestinians were not serious partners for peace, that the Palestinians were not forthcoming, that they’re not willing to compromise, that they were set in their ways. What we found out from the Palestine Papers, 1,600 documents detailing session after sessions with the Americans, with the Israelis and so on and so forth, that the Palestinian delegation was not only making incredible compromises that I’m not sure that they will pass through the public opinion in Palestine, but they were making acrobatic attempts just to please their Israeli partners and their American partners. They were almost playing in the American role of trying to bridge between America and Israel and between Palestine and Israel themselves. And yet, they’ve been met with rejection after rejection after rejection, not only from the so-called hawkish bits of the Israeli politics, but actually from the so-called moderate parts of the Israeli policy or the Israeli delegation. So we would see sessions after session, for example, with then-Foreign Minister Livni, where the Palestinians are offering one possibility after another, and the Israelis coming back and saying something so condescending, such as, “Oh, this is very interesting, but I don’t think this will work. Why don’t you come up with something different?” And it just goes on and on for years.

Now, as Professor Chomsky was saying, the problem with much of that, Amy, is that there is information out there, but it does not come together in some understanding of some sort. So we know for 20 years the Palestinians have made historic compromises on the question of the territory, on the question of borders, even on the question of Jerusalem, a question of right of return of refugees, but they have always been met with rejection from the Israeli side and complicity from the American side.

AMY GOODMAN: And Al Jazeera’s role here? And the significance, before you go, of Al Jazeera in this entire uprising? I mean, Saeb Erekat first was really fiercely going after Al Jazeera, and then, before you know it, he, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, had resigned. You, yourself, Marwan, are Palestinian.

MARWAN BISHARA: Well, you know, there was an article out a couple of days ago – I think it was in the Washington Post – by Robert Malley, who was a former aide at the Clinton administration. He said, “Well, today we showed, you know, that Al Jazeera is the Arab leader.” And what does that really mean? What it means is that Al Jazeera is a transparent, open forum for Arabs to come and speak, and they have been for the last decade and a half, almost as long as you’ve been on air, Amy, except that they’ve given Arabs from various parts of the Arab world the capacity to come on air and speak. And I think the way we’ve covered places like Palestine – for example, we were the only ones, Amy, in Gaza during the Israeli bombardment and war and invasion of Gaza, last one in 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Ayman – right? – who now is in Cairo, is the Cairo bureau chief.

MARWAN BISHARA: Yes, Ayman Mohyeldin, that’s correct. And, of course, in Cairo, we’ve been there in a very substantial way. I think we had like eight roving reporters in Egypt alone when things broke out. So, we are there, we listen to the people, and we report the story as is. Of course, before, we’ve been accused, because we report those things that Noam spoke about, the sentiments of people – there is a pent-up tension in that area. The fact that Washington sees people as terrorists, as jihadists, as radicals, as extremists, and the most autocratic and the worst of kleptocracies in the world as moderate, as allies, as friends of the United States, is an insult to the American people. But that’s how Washington has been viewing these things.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break and then come back. Marwan Bishara, I want to thank you very much for being with us, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera English and host and editor of Empire. You can see Al Jazeera English on the web. In fact, we did a very interesting forum that you moderated, Marwan, at Columbia Journalism School, with Carl Bernstein and Clay Shirky and others, about WikiLeaks, about a number of issues, about what’s happening. It was happening all – about an hour after Mubarak had resigned. You can go, unfortunately, I’ll say, online, until this is all over the United States. In Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont, you can see Al Jazeera English, actually, on Free Speech TV and on Link TV, satellite networks who are giving over some of their time to the programming. We’ll see what happens. Al Jazeera English is waging a huge campaign in the United States, full-page articles in the New York Times ads, saying to people to call for their networks, to cable stations, to bring Al Jazeera just as one of the panoply of networks that people can see. Marwan, thanks so much, Marwan Bishara.

This article was first published on Democracy Now! on February 17, 2011.