Arab world

The big picture

Print edition : September 02, 2016

A person carries away a poster of Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi from a protest camp of Muslim Brotherhood activists at Nahda Square, Cairo, in August 2013. Photo: Amr Nabil/AP

The author advances an argument about the slow political death of the idea of Arab nationalism in the fires of sectarian war and chaos that run from Iraq to Libya, from Yemen to Palestine.

I WAS reading this book when the failed coup of July 15 occurred in Turkey. The book helped me much to understand what happened after the coup when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming that it was a “God-given” opportunity for him to “cleanse” the system of the cancer that has set in, proceeded to dismantle democracy in his country. This is the primary merit of this book written by Vijay Prashad, blessed with an extra-large dosage of wanderlust. He travels extensively in the countries he writes about and with much joy runs the risk of being shot at or kidnapped. He has personal contacts with an amazingly large number of persons involved in the politico-military drama unfolding in the region.

Vijay claims that the book is a “reporter’s guidebook, not a scholar’s treatise”. He is right and wrong. His style is crisp and lucid, and it is not weighed down by scholarly erudition exhibited industriously. Incidentally, Vijay is more than a journalist. He holds the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

The true merit of the book is that it gives the reader the big picture, and the original theses of the author are, in general, well defended. For example, let us take the concept of regime change. Most people might think of the military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Libya that removed Muammar Qaddafi from power, leading to his killing by a mob, as a classic case of regime change. Most of us think of regime change through violence. But Vijay points out that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank can change regime as in Egypt (2013) and now as it goes on in Syria.

By using the expression “The Death of the Nation”, the author wants to advance an “argument about the slow political death of the idea of Arab nationalism in the fires of sectarian war and chaos that runs from Iraq to Libya, from Yemen to Palestine”. The Arab Revolution, despite all appearance of futility, “remains alive and well in the hearts of the Arab masses”. He asks us to consider the whole matter within a longer time frame.

After five years of chaos and strife, what is left of the Arab Spring? In both Tunisia and Egypt, autocrats who held power for decades were washed away, but the system they headed has survived more or less. Both countries have experienced a “bourgeois revolution” though there are important differences between the two. Threats to the Tunisian revolution came from all directions—the old order eager to come back without Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the IMF wanting cuts in the budget, and the “extremist groups incubating in the slums of Tunisia”. What saved Tunisia, according to the author, is its trade union UGTT, which reached out to its historical enemy, the employers’ association and its allies in the human rights field, and succeeded in drawing a road map to save the country from plunging into political instability.

The author’s praise for the UGTT which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 with others of the famous “Quartet”—the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—is understandable. But, it is necessary to add that when Ben Ali was in power, the top leadership of the UGTT was close to him and that as the agitation gathered momentum following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor, it was the members of the UGTT and the local leadership that joined in the agitation without waiting for any instructions from the top leadership.

Another point to recall is that the conventional account, more or less endorsed by the author, that it was the Quartet that saved Tunisia is a partial account of what happened. As the Ennahda-led government was asked to step down by demonstrators, Rached Ghannouchi, the founder-leader of that party, met with Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the newly formed Nidaa Tounes composed of the Left, the Centre and the Right with a good admixture of men who had held high offices under Ben Ali. It was agreed that after the approval of the Constitution by the parliament, the government would resign to be replaced by a Cabinet of technocrats.

Further, it was agreed that the new Constitution would remove the stipulation in the old one that the candidate for the presidency should not be more than 75 years of age so that Essebsi would not be disqualified because of his advanced age. It was also agreed that those who held appointments under Ben Ali would not be disqualified. It was that agreement between the two leaders which saved Tunisia. The role of the Quartet was not as crucial as the international media and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have portrayed it.

ISIS and imperialism

The chapter aptly titled “The Anatomy of the Islamic State” points out that though the Islamic State (ISIS) takes its inspiration from early Islamic history, the threats posed by the ISIS can be understood only by following the history of imperialism in the region. It was the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq and the deadly civil war in Syria since 2011 that begat the ISIS. Its proxy in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra, which means “the Support Front”. Initially, al-Nusra supported the Free Syrian Army when there was a fight over the Menagh Air Base near Aleppo in 2012. For some time, al-Nusra and the ISIS worked together. As ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ambition soared, he and al-Nusra fell out. Saudi Arabia’s Jaysh al-Islam operated around Damascus, while Ahrar al-Sham backed by Qatar and Turkey held fast in north-western Syria. Along the Turkish border, various other Turkish proxies —some of them drawing support from the Turkmen population in Syria—grew in strength. The Syrian revolt by the end of 2011 was defined by extremism. This is an important thesis of the author.

As regards the responsibility for the growth of extremism, the author holds the Syrian government also responsible as its “artillery and air force have a tendency to indiscriminately bomb civilian areas”. Here the author is making a balanced judgment as compared to some other writers from India who have tended to assert the “innocence” of the Syrian regime. He has given a detailed explanation of the breakdown of the contract between the government and the people in which the latter accepted limitations on their liberties as the price to be paid for an economic system that gave them work and income; and Bashar al-Assad failed to reform the system even as it stopped delivering what was promised to the masses as per the contract and that too at a time when crony capitalism enriched the few close to Assad.

The author deals at some length with the unnecessary and unconscionable violence that United States forces inflicted on Iraqi civilians during the occupation. “The marines shot them at close range. When the marines reported what they had done, Chief Warrant Officer K.R. Norwood recorded the deaths as routine. Later, when he was interrogated, Norwood said, ‘I meant it was not remarkable, based off the area. I wouldn’t say remarkable, sir.’ Another senior officer characterised such killings as ‘the cost of doing business’.”

Ambassador Joe Wilson sent to Iraq in 2010 to assess the problems found to his horror that the service people “don’t see themselves there to bring peace, light, and joy or even democracy to Iraq”. They are there to kill the “camel jockeys” as they referred to the Iraqis. In short, Vijay has sought to correct the prevailing image of the ISIS as terrorists, not by denying their terrorism, but by explaining the factors that gave rise to their version of terrorism, which was a response to terrorism on the part of the foreign occupiers of Iraq.

Vijay explains the birth of the World Muslim League (WML) in 1962 in a refreshingly original manner. The reason as communicated to the U.S. for establishing the WML was that “Islam forms a significant bulwark against Communism”. As part of the reform to stem the tide of communism, and to propagate Islam, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Sin decided to send out mutawiyin (the pious) to enforce virtue. “They were keen to condemn both folklore and rationalism—apostasies of the past and the present. In the chamber of the mutawiyin lay files to traduce the secular nationalists and the Communists.” The reader might wonder whether the argument about the WML is fully convincing. Riyadh might have used the need to fight communism in its explanation to Washington as a convenient argument. Is it not the case that the Wahhabis wanted to expand their hold on society in any case and that anti-communism came in handy as a presentational device while talking to the U.S.?

Saudi-Iran confrontation

Vijay takes a reasoned look at the ongoing Saudi-Iran confrontation. He correctly rejects the theory of a Sunni-Shia confrontation as the full explanation of the state of interstate relations in the region. Regional aspirations anchor the relationship between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Until the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was hardly any tension between Riyadh and Tehran. The 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque by Salafists shocked Riyadh. It decided to take on the threat from Iran and the Salafists and it “egged on a sectarian war—prosecuted by Iraq —against Iran and it exported its disgruntled male youth toward jehad in distant lands as cannon fodder for Western wars”.

In 2006, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus sent a cable to the Department of State arguing that the U.S. should “play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence” and the U.S. should work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to “fan the flames of sectarianism”. This cable may be contrasted with another cable from the U.S. Ambassador in Damascus in 1979 that argued that there was no sectarian strife; in a Cabinet of 35, there were only three Alawites and in the Baath Regional Command there were only seven Alawites among 21 members in total. The author convincingly concludes: “To reduce the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to sectarianism is to miss the longer history of machinations in West Asia—which include the cloak-and-dagger role of the West.”

The chapter titled “Turkey and the Camp of Counterrevolution” gives a concise account of Erdogan’s dealings with the West and Turkey’s military. In 2003, when President George W. Bush attacked Iraq, almost all Turks opposed the war. Erdogan asked his party MPs to vote in the parliament for a motion permitting the use of military bases by the U.S. Half of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) MPs disobeyed, but Erdogan talked to them and made them change their mind at the next vote. By this Erdogan proved to NATO that it could count on him. Erdogan has been always suspicious of the military which unseated Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan belonging to the Refah (Welfare) Party, a pre-incarnation of Erdogan’s AKP. The military is associated with the Kemalist version of secularism in direct opposition to Erdogan’s Islamism.

The 2013 coup in Egypt that overthrew the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has been attributed to the mistakes of the Brotherhood and to the cleverness of the Egyptian Army in creating the preconditions to justify its intervention. A reference to the Deep State in Egypt led by the Army that never accepted the result of the first free election in Egypt’s history and worked hard to unseat the Brotherhood government would have balanced the account.

All told, Vijay through this book has taken us through his purposeful and fearless wanderings and we expect more books from him as the politico-military drama shows no sign of ending. The basic theme of the book is that human beings count and it is their suffering that has to be brought to an end, a goal that power wielders do not seem to share. Vijay knows his geopolitics, but his approach is essentially people-centric but without ignoring geopolitics.

A letter from the Editor


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