The Arab world has been in a state of increasing ossification ever since I started following its affairs closely in 1970. That was the year that King Hussein beat back the Palestinian-radical challenge to his regime in Jordan, and that Egypt’s President Jamal Abdel-Nasser died. Also, the year that Hafez al-Asad’s relatively conservative “Corrective movement” seized power from its more radical Baathist colleagues in Damascus.
1970 was also the year that– in line with the plans announced in the wake of the debacle at Suez 14 years earlier– the British navy finally withdrew from the positions it had long held “East of Suez.”
We can therefore say that 1970 was the year the British handed over the baton of “dominant western power” in the Middle East, to Washington. Washington’s power became considerably strengthened when Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, made a strategic shift over from the pro-Soviet to the pro-American camp in 1972. (Kissinger was slow to understand what Sadat was doing. If he had understood, Sadat’s attention-grabbing move of undertaking the 1973 war– with its clearly defined aim of starting peace negotiations with Israel in earnest– could have been avoided.)
So now, let’s go to Liberation Square in downtown Cairo. Right now! With this livestreamed filming of what’s happening there.
This has to be a short blog post. But I want to list the many places in the long US-dominated Middle east in which US power is right now eroding:
- In Egypt, the long-entrenched, US-backed-to-the-repressive-hilt Mubarak regime is facing one of the most serious challenges yet to its control.
In Tunisia, the long-entrenched, strongly US-backed Ben Ali regime is history, and citizens on the streets and in their gathering places are right now determining how their country will governed in the future.
In Lebanon, Hizbullah and its allies– who span all the country’s different religious groups– today succeeded in having their candidate, Najib Mikati, named as the next Prime Minister. The pundits at the NYT might huff and puff (and the news editors give massive amounts of space to reporting on how Israel views matters in Lebanon– much more, I think, than they have ever given to how Lebanese people view matter in Israel!) But this is what has happened. And though notable Israeli securocrat Giora Eiland warned yesterday that “Now all of Lebanon looks like Hizbullah, and could therefore be a legitimate target for Israeli attack”– Well, Israel and whose political support is going to undertake such an attack? (The ambitious young US military analyst Andrew Exum parroted Eland’s argument today. Quite without thinking through the many changes in the M.E. region between Israel’s last attack on Lebanon in 2006, and today. Also, back in 2006, did Hizbullah’s much greater distance from the halls of power in Beirut’s Serail save the country from massive devastation by the Israeli air force? It did not.)
In Palestine, Abu Mazen and his long-entrenched, strongly US-backed “PA” regime are buckling under the facts of its complete failure in its pursuit of diplomacy with Israel and its failure to protect East Jerusalem and other occupied Palestinian land from the depradations of Israel’s continuing colonial juggernaut– as well as under the clear revelation of those facts through the most recent “Palestine Papers” distribution.
Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and other Arab countries have also been seeing some significant popular unrest… However, one other player in the Middle East is currently notable because it is “the dog that isn’t barking” (pardon the metaphor, which is derived from Sherlock Holmes.) This is Saudi Arabia, which throughout these past 41 years– and most particularly since the killing (assassination?) of King Faisal in 1975– has been a central bulwark of U.S. policy both within the Middle East and far beyond.
In Lebanon, it was the Saudi monarch’s stalwart support of Saad Hariri, and his equally stalwart opposition to the government in Damascus, that sustained (financially and in other ways) the whole anti-Syria, anti-Hizbullah, and “March 14” phenomenon from 2004 until the Doha summit in 2008. And this time around, when Hariri desperately sought the support of King Abdullah in New York, instead of giving him what he sought, Abdullah checked out of playing any continuing active role in the negotiations over Lebanon. So when I say Saudi Arabia is the “dog that isn’t barking” this is not a comment on the absence of popular protest in Saudi Arabia (which may or may not be happening; but it isn’t being reported at this point.) It’s a comment on the fact that Saudi diplomacy is playing no discernible role these days in trying to prop up the pro-U.S. order of which it has for so long been a key pillar.
The Saudi princes are, anyway, locked (as Ben Ali, Mubarak, and so many of the Arab world’s other fairly ossified, US-backed leaders have been) into the long, slow dance of a succession struggle. Quite likely, as the 40-plus princely lines that descended from King Abdul-Aziz negotiate with each other over how the succession (and all those fabulous bennies from ruling Saudi Arabia!) will be decided once the present, very aged King and Crown Prince both totter from the stage, they have little mental bandwidth to pay much attention to anything else outside Riyadh. But I suspect other factors are at play, too; not least, a deep disgust with the effect that 40 years of U.S. domination of the laughably misnamed “peace process” has now so evidently had on the situation in their beloved Jerusalem, and therefore, a mounting disgust with U.S. diplomacy itself.
Well, I shan’t spend too much time here trying to read the motivations of the Saudi princes. Too much of great interest is happening in the Middle East today.
Of course there is no clear picture of where all the present developments will lead. They may or may not topple additional regimes, in addition to those in Tunis and Beirut. We still have no idea how Israel and a long deeply Israel-influenced regime in Washington will react. With or without Israeli or U.S. intervention, we still have no idea at all of the future directions that any “post-American” regimes in the region may take.
But something big is stirring in the Arab world. Thus far, it has been overwhelmingly peaceable, and overwhelmingly based on mass civilian organizing. Those two features of the movement need to be guarded closely.