Cover Story

Storm clouds

Print edition : September 20, 2013

Armoured vehicles guard the entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo on August 16, two days after the crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

President Barack Obama. The U.S., which cultivated the Muslim Brotherhood, now finds itself between a rock and a hard place in Egypt. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP

A protest in Washington, D.C., on August 29. The U.S., which seemed intent on striking Syria, has had to backtrack now. Photo: Saul LOEB/AFP

Mahmoud Badr (left) and Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, leaders of Tamarod, which led the protests against Mohammed Morsy, with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Cairo on July 29. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

The United States’ West Asia policy is likely to ensure that the Arab Spring, which had engendered great hopes in the Arab street, will end in an orgy of bloodbath.

THE Arab Spring has finally faded out along with all the hoopla of Western-style democracy taking root in the region. Instead, war clouds are looming on the horizon, with the United States itching to attack Syria and Israel raring to take on the Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Only Iran in the region has been able to hold elections every four years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The elections in that country, despite some checks imposed by the theocratic establishment, have allowed competing factions to have their say. The elected government in Tunisia is just about holding on in the face of intense pressure. The Islamists, who won a majority there, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, had the foresight of forming a more inclusive government that has representatives from the secular parties. Lebanon, too, holds elections, but its archaic Constitution has guaranteed that power is distributed on sectarian lines.

Egypt, the most populous and powerful Arab nation, is back under military control after barely a year under civilian rule. The Egyptian Ambassador to India, Khaled el-Bakly, told Frontline that the happenings in Egypt did not signal the end of the road for the Arab Spring or the growth of democracy in the region. He said the Egyptian Army only intervened when the Muslim Brotherhood refused to listen to the voices of the majority of the people and went resolutely ahead with its plans to enshrine a Constitution that would have given dictatorial powers to the presidency. He pointed out that there was no clause for the impeachment of the President in the proposed Constitution. The army leadership, he said, had tried its best to hammer out a compromise solution between the Brotherhood and its opponents. “Collecting signatures was the only option left for ordinary Egyptians. More than 22 million people signed the petition demanding the dismissal of the Morsy government,” the Ambassador claimed. The army, he said, had no other choice but to side with the “33 million people” who had staged protests all over Egypt.

The diplomat insisted that the military had not usurped power and that a clear road map for holding elections was in place. Bakly said elections would be held in seven to nine months and that he expected all political parties, including the Brotherhood, to participate in them. With its top leadership either in jail or in hiding, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to rise to the bait. It is only recently that the authorities have soft-pedalled talks about banning the organisation. Many observers of the region feel that Egypt may experience the kind of bloody scenario that was witnessed in Algeria in 1991 when the army there stepped in to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from coming to power. A brutal civil war followed in which more than a hundred thousand people perished. It took more than a decade for relative calm to prevail in that country. Egyptian officials say that they are prepared for any eventuality and are confident of negating any threat posed by terrorism to national unity.

Sabre-rattling on Syria

The United States, which invested a lot of time and resources in cultivating the Brotherhood, now finds itself between a rock and a hard place in Egypt. People on both sides of the Egyptian divide look at the West with suspicion. The interim government has distanced itself from Morsy’s full-throated endorsement of the jehadis in Syria and has barred Egyptians from going to Syria to wage war. Cairo also voiced its objections to Western military strikes against Syria. The government is also not discouraging moves by the Tamarod movement, which played a key role in organising anti-Morsy demonstrations, from collecting signatures demanding the abrogation of the 1978 Camp David Accord with Israel. In the last week of August, the Barack Obama administration resorted to sabre-rattling on Syria. The spurious “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, which was used to dismember Yugoslavia and later engineer regime change in countries such as Libya, is sought to be replicated in Syria. In all likelihood, the Arab Spring, which had engendered great hopes in the Arab street, is going to end in an orgy of bloodbath. A U.S.-led attack on Syria has the potential to unleash a wider war. Syrian officials have hinted that any U.S. attack on their country would lead to the targeting of Israel. Israel has anyway been carrying out its own military strikes on Syria since the upheaval began two years ago.

The Obama administration got the so-called “proof” of the Syrian government’s involvement in the latest “gas” attack in Damascus from the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The intelligence, according to U.S. and British media, was based on “official chatter” in Damascus intercepted by Israeli intelligence. British Members of Parliament and Western security experts have refused to fall for the “sexed up” evidence. The U.S., which seemed intent on striking Syria with cruise missiles, has had to backtrack now. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, had tweeted in the last week of August that the West “behaves towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade”.

All these developments suit Al Qaeda and the assorted Salafist and Takfiri groups fighting for the overthrow of the Syrian government. As recent events have shown, a tacit U.S.-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance is in play to negate the positive gains of the Arab Spring. The Palestinian cause has been put on the back burner as the focus of the West and its allies is to preserve the authoritarian regimes in countries that also coincidentally have huge hydrocarbon deposits. Reports are rife in the region about the growing cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Saudi intelligence and the Mossad, to destabilise Syria and Lebanon, and eventually weaken Iran. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made a highly publicised visit to Moscow in early August to persuade President Vladimir Putin to ditch the government of Bashar al Assad in lieu of a multibillion dollar arms contract. According to reports in the Arab media, Prince Bandar warned Putin that there was no escape from “the military option” in Syria. But his attempts to convince Moscow were futile. The cruise missile attack planned by the U.S. on the basis of unverified reports of chemical weapons usage was part of the plan to target the Syrian military and help reverse the military setback suffered by the myriad rebel groups.

Prince Bandar has also been credited with being one of the key figures behind the recent events in Egypt. Saudi Arabia, along with its key regional allies, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, assured full diplomatic and financial support to the Egyptian military in its move against the elected civilian government. The three countries together pledged a financial infusion of $12 billion as soon as the military took over, dwarfing the annual tranche of $1.4 billion provided by the U.S. There was some misplaced fear in Cairo that the Obama administration would cut off the annual aid to Egypt. Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of American aid. U.S. congressional laws mandate that military aid be cut off if the administration officially characterised a military takeover as a coup. No such thing has happened. The Egyptian military is almost totally dependent on U.S. arms supplies and spares. The U.S. still has a lot of leverage in Egypt but it has decided to go along, at least for the time being, with the Saudi- and, earlier, the Qatari-inspired blueprint for the region. “After all, little Saudi Arabia and tiny Qatar are able to wield such influence in Syria and Egypt today because they have the field virtually to themselves,” observed Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of the American journal Foreign Affairs, in a recent column in The New York Times.

There is no love lost between the Saudi monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood. The removal of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the victory of the Brotherhood in the elections held in June 2012 came as a shock to the Saudi rulers. This antipathy has not prevented Saudi Arabia and its allies from continuing to support the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in countries such as Syria and Iraq. The primary aim of the monarchies is to ward off imminent threats to their regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most organised political movement existing at this juncture in the Arab world although moves are afoot to purge it from its strongest bastion—Egypt. The new dispensation in Cairo has the full support of Saudi Arabia and its allies in its efforts to marginalise the Brotherhood as a political force.

Courted by the U.S.

The Brotherhood branch in Egypt, until the other day, was courted by the U.S. and the West and presented to the rest of the world as an illustration of moderate Islamists with whom the international community could do business. The Mohamed Morsy government showed no signs of deviating from the foreign policy line or the neoliberal economic policies of the Mubarak government. It swore by the Camp David agreement with Israel. The government in Cairo actually tightened the blockade on the hapless Gaza Strip, though Hamas, a branch of the Brotherhood, was in control of the territory. Now the Brotherhood is being accused of encouraging “terrorism” by the Egyptian government and its main ally at the moment, Saudi Arabia, although the large protests it launched were generally peaceful. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, publicly pledged to wholeheartedly support the Egyptian military to root out “terrorism, extremism and sedition”. And in an unprecedented move, he implicitly criticised the U.S. and Qatar “for fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting”. Qatar was the main financial backer of the Brotherhood, and the Obama administration had cultivated strong links with its leadership.

The recent events in the region have given a new lease of life to the American game plan of balkanising the region. This idea was aired by the neoconservatives who dominated the George Bush administration. The doyen among American diplomats, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has clearly spelt out this goal once again. “There are three clear possible outcomes in Syria. An Assad victory. A Sunni victory. Or an outcome in which the various nationalities agree to coexist together but in more or less autonomous regions,” Kissinger said in a recent speech delivered at the University of Michigan. He went on to add that he preferred the third solution, pointing out that Syria was created by the French and Iraq by the British in order to facilitate their control of the countries.

The Yemeni Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman said that the events in Egypt sounded the death knell for the Arab Spring and the democratic movement in the region. Tawakul Karman is a member of the Yemeni branch of the Brotherhood and was awarded the Peace Prize for her political activism in her home country. “The Arab Spring is about building democracy. A military coup is an antithesis of that. It undermines everything,” she said. She was particularly scathing about Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark that the army’s intervention in Egypt was aimed at “restoring democracy”. An important factor behind the revolution that overthrew Mubarak was the plunging living standards of the people. Forty per cent of the people were living on less than $3 a day. A big majority of the young people continue to remain unemployed. The challenges ahead for Egypt and the wider Arab world are daunting. The so-called revolution in Libya succeeded after being led “from behind” by the U.S. Today, the country is caught in the vortex of political and economic chaos as various regions and tribes jockey of controlling its energy resources. Islamist militant groups have ceased to be under the control of the foreign powers that had armed them in their fight to overthrow the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

From the outset, the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring were channelled by the West and their conservative allies in the region to destabilise republican governments in the Arab world with an independent foreign policy. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were triggered by popular upheavals and without the consent of the West. The ousted Tunisian President, Ben Ali, and Hosni Mubarak were loyal allies of Washington. To control the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring and stem the tide of genuine change, the U.S. and its allies in the region devised the strategy of encouraging sectarian forces. The bogey of an emerging “Shia crescent”, comprising Iran, Iraq Syria, and the Hizbollah, was conveniently raised. Syria, the only country which has a truly secular Constitution and which is home to an amalgam of ethnic groups and faiths, was specifically targeted for regime change. The Sunni-Shia divide is being sought to be accentuated by the West in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon where Iran has considerable influence. The strife is also being encouraged to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. The majority of the population in Bahrain is Shia and Yemen has a large minority Shia population.

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