Extract: Chill winds blow for Arab spring
The Australian
Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
Thursday, August 4, 2011

Click here for an update on 25 October 2021.

THE Arab Spring has turned cold. Cold and nasty. It's certainly far too early to write off the potential benefits of the Arab upheaval. As the great Egyptian writer and liberal activist, Tarek Heggy, told me some time ago: "Any outcome is possible; even a good outcome." But if it's half-time, or perhaps quarter-time to use an AFL analogy, the opposing team has scored a lot of points and liberal reform is well behind. The international consequences, so far, are not very pleasant either.

Take the countries one by one. Last week saw a mass demonstration in Cairo by many thousands of Islamists who celebrated the presence of known extremists with long records of calling for jihad and violence. This week, Islamists helped the army clear out some of the few remaining secular protesters from Tahrir Square. There are signs of an alliance building between the Islamists and the army, though it may be that the army remains a critical force for stability as Egypt develops politically.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian economy is flowing rapidly down the toilet. Tourism is dead and a prodigious capital flight is under way. The protesters, the Islamists and even the army all have reasons, substantial or tactical, to demonise business people. But when you demonise business you guarantee the exodus of wealth. On some estimates, by the year's end, Egypt will be unable to pay for its imports or feed its people. And just to cheer you up, the latest polls show the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots would score spectacularly well in a parliamentary election, although it's true that these polls vary pretty widely. An even more extreme Salafist group of parties is also scoring solid backing. My Egyptian friends consistently informed me that the public moderation of the Islamists during the Egyptian uprising was temporary, tactical and fraudulent.

In Tunisia, where it all began, the economy has also tanked, and the hitherto most socially liberal of Arab states has seen a rise of intolerant Islamism.

In Libya, we are in the midst of a horrible stalemate. The only two tyrants to fall so far are those in Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries most well-disposed toward the US. In Libya, the grotesque Muammar Gadaffi clings to power. While NATO has intervened militarily in Libya, it has done so in an exceptionally cack-handed way. Prepared to rain lethal bombs on Gaddafi's forces, and give full diplomatic recognition to Libya's rebels, it has not provided them with tank-busting weapons, suitable anti-mine equipment, artillery or much else. A faction of the rebels murdered their military commander, General Abdel Fattah Younis, a key Gaddafi lieutenant who had defected. Therefore the longer the stalemate the less likely we are to get a clean transition to a decent government.

Brief update: Gaddafi and his forces lost the Battle of Tripoli in August and on 16 September 2011 the NTC (National Transitional Council) took Libya's seat at the UN, replacing Gaddafi. He retained control over parts of Libya, most notably the city of Sirte, to which it was presumed that he had fled. Although Gaddafi's forces initially held out against the NTC's advances, Gaddafi was captured alive after his convoy was attacked by NATO warplanes as Sirte fell on 20 October 2011 but was then killed by the rebels the same day.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has killed thousands of people. The enduring courage of the Syrian protesters is astonishing. The Syrian economy, which unlike Libya has no oil to speak of, is also going down the drain.

In Yemen, the future looks very bloody. The old regime has not been toppled and the local al-Qa'ida affiliate is still full of fight.

In Bahrain, protesters representing a Shi'ite majority under Sunni rule have been crushed.

In Saudi Arabia, the unreconstructed absolute monarchy has spent money on social programs to bribe its people, but has actually tightened censorship and political control.

In Lebanon, where for a time a pro-Western coalition ruled, the government is now dominated by Hezbollah. Many of the elements we once took comfort from in the Arab Spring have changed. It's true that al-Qa'ida, Hezbollah and Iran were taken by surprise by the Arab uprisings, and neither controlled nor much influenced them. But these forces are well and truly in the game now.

The character of the Arab Spring is changing partly as a result. What about some other international consequences? For Israel, two are obvious. The first is that it is now surely only the certifiably insane who would argue that Israel is central to the dysfunction and conflict within the Arab world. The Arab Spring, and the grievances that fuelled it, had nothing to do with Israel (except in people's minds - Steve). The second consequence for Israel is that it cannot possibly consider peace treaties — with its neighbouring states or with the Palestinians — until the shape of the new Middle East is clear, certainly until it knows whether its peace with Egypt will hold.

The Arab Spring had some alarming consequences too for China. It shows that economic growth does not guarantee stability (namely Egypt and Tunisia), nor does efficient, brutal Stalinism (namely Syria). It also showed that paranoid nationalism and a focus on phony external enemies (namely the entire Arab world and Israel) does not guarantee stability either. And it reinforced Beijing's belief that the social media are dangerous if not controlled because they can lead to civic mobilisation. So the result of the Arab Spring in China has been a renewed wave of extremely severe internal repression.

And the Arab Spring has not been very good for Washington either. The Obama administration has been marginal during the entire process. Its comic mis-readings of Egypt and repeated contradictions and day-late adjustments of position — the then Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak went from member of the family, to stabilising force overseeing reform, to someone who should step down, to a war criminal, in a few short weeks — had only one benefit. It showed Washington was not calling the shots.


Update: Twelve months later

Tehran flexes ahead of summit
The Australian
Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TEHRAN: Iran yesterday was deploying formidable security around a Non-Aligned Movement meeting preparing for a summit later this week that Tehran is determined to use to bolster its international status. About 110,000 police have been dispatched around the country, many to man street corners and ubiquitous vehicle inspection points in the capital. The uniformed presence underlined Iran's intent to ensure nothing upsets an event that Iran is portraying as a diplomatic coup against US-led pressure. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is expected to reinforce that message when he opens the two-day NAM summit on Thursday.

The NAM, a Cold War grouping founded in 1961, has 120 members that represent most of the developing world and see themselves as independent of Washington and Moscow. Although the organisation had increasingly been viewed as an anachronism in the past couple of decades, Iran seeks to revive it as a counterweight to perceived domineering by permanent UN Security Council members Britain, France, China, Russia and, especially, the US. "We share the concern of many members that the UN Security Council has increasing power in the face of decreasing power in the (UN) General Assembly," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday as he opened the NAM preparatory meetings.

Delegations were likely to have their attention focused on Syria's 17-month uprising, however. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is to make another stab during the summit by talking with Iranian officials about his idea of a contact group on Syria. Its members would include Iran, which backs the Damascus regime, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which support the Syrian opposition. "If this group succeeds, Iran would be part of the solution and not the problem," Mr Morsi's spokesman, Yassir Ali, said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not be going to Tehran for the summit. Instead, he would send his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. But Assad said "he would welcome efforts Iran can make to solve Syria's problems", on condition that countries supporting Syria's rebels "exert pressure on them to stop the bloodshed and violence," spokesman Aladin Borujerdi said.

Mr Morsi's presence would also be notable in that it would be the first by an Egyptian leader to Iran since diplomatic relations were broken in 1979, after Cairo hosted Iran's toppled shah and signed a peace accord with Israel. Mr Ali said Mr Morsi's visit in Tehran would last just "a few hours" and "no other subject is expected" to be broached, specifically any concerning the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Iran's defence of the Palestinian cause was also certain to be raised. Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have repeatedly called Israel a "cancerous tumour" that should be excised from the Middle East, with "Palestine" replacing it. Iran is also keen to use the summit to gather support for its nuclear program, which is the source of a fraught showdown between it and the West. Mr Salehi yesterday said he expected the summit to voice support for Iran's "legitimate rights" to nuclear activities.


Update: Following the Paris massacre in November 2015

Comments from Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
The Australian
Thursday, November 19, 2015

Illustration: Sturt Krygsman Source: TheAustralian

In response to the terrorist murders in Paris, the French government promised a "pitiless" response, said the terrorist attacks were a declaration of war and then bombed Islamic State targets in Raqqa, Syria. The French government told us it destroyed an Islamic State training camp as well as a munitions dump. Is there the slightest chance that this is true?

Here is the logical contradiction. If such fat, juicy Islamic State targets existed the day before the Paris attacks, why hadn't they been taken out by the US-led air campaign already?

The chief difficulty with that campaign has been finding targets. The French military action almost certainly resides in the symbolic category — being seen to do something. The real purpose of French military action therefore was to show a willing spirit, to demonstrate defiance, to bolster morale and to symbolise determination. These are not ignoble ambitions. The French were right to do what they did, however ineffective it might be.

But we need to ask the broader question: how should the West act in and towards the Middle East? The past 15 years offers us an almost textbook case of the efficacy of three types of Western policy: Iraq, Libya and Syria.

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and set up a more democratic, representative government there. Shortly before the invasion I had the pleasure of talking to Henry Kissinger and remember him saying that he did not think long-term occupation of Iraq by US forces was viable as it would create too much resentment. He was, as it turns out, absolutely right.

The US certainly acted in good faith. It thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. It also, however, thought it could change the political culture of the Middle East and improve it. There was nothing anti-Islamic about this invasion. The US had undertaken many military actions to defend Muslims, such as stopping Serbs from slaughtering Kosovars, or liberating Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, or supporting Afghanistan against Soviet invasion.

The occupation was a sign in fact of American idealism, the willingness to expend vast amounts of treasure, and many American lives, to try to improve the long-term situation of Iraqis. However, the invasion of Iraq brought about not a ready democracy and peace but a long and bloody insurgency. It also did not bring about democracy. Nonetheless, of the three cases under consideration, Iraq is the least terrible.

The Iraqi government controls most of the Shia areas, the Kurds control the Kurdish areas and the Arab Sunni areas are contested by Islamic State and the Iraqi government. However, it was so expensive in every way, in terms of human life and also in terms of the US budget, that it cannot possibly be repeated. The 2011 Libyan intervention, pushed very hard by Kevin Rudd among others, unlike the Iraq intervention, had the full backing and authority of the UN.

It seemed to learn the lessons of the Iraq quagmire. There would be no Western boots on the ground. Instead, airstrikes were used to give effect to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which would save, in particular, the people of Benghazi from the slaughter threatened by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi was not as remotely as blood-soaked a dictator as Saddam but he was bad enough. When he was toppled, the US and others offered the Libyans aid. Elections were held. The Libyan liberals won. They were grateful to the Americans. For a moment Western prestige stood high in Libya as it had, also for a moment, in Iraq. But then the Libyan war lords and tribal leaders decided they would not respect the results of the election. Libya descended into a variety of the chaos that had befallen Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. Some war lords were tribal, some were ethnic, some were ideological/religious, affiliated with al-Qa'ida or, later, Islamic State, or committed just generally to the poisonous, ultra-fundamentalist version of jihadist Islamism.

It's important to understand that hatred of the West is an essential part of this ideology, dating back to the earliest days of the Muslim Brotherhood and beyond, and especially to the writings of its most influential thinker, Sayyid Qutb.

When modern Islamist terrorists blame this or that policy of the West for their actions, at most they are talking about what their teachers most recently attached their emotions to. The hostility to the West, manifested in al-Qa'ida's 9/11 terror attacks, long predates Western intervention in Iraq, Libya or Syria. In any event, the Libyan intervention was a failure. Huge quantities of Libyan army weaponry found their way into jihadist hands all over North Africa and the Middle East. Libya is worse than it was under Gaddafi and worse than Iraq is.

Then there is Syria. In Syria, the West did not intervene. Having learned the lessons of big intervention in Iraq, and modest intervention in Libya, the West threatened to intervene in Syria but did not do so. The Arab Spring broke out and Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, cracked down on it with barbaric ferocity.

Before the Arab Spring, Assad was not, by Arab standards, a particularly brutal dictator. Christians and other minorities lived without persecution in Syria, the economy was developing slowly and the country's borders were stable.

So those strategic wiseacres who say all Western intervention in the Middle East is doomed and it's better to do nothing have to deal with the case of Syria. It descended into absolutely savage civil war and it spawned Islamic State as the most bloodthirsty and violent of the Sunni jihadist groups.

So the policy of non-intervention produced the worst outcome of all. The limited Western air intervention in Syria comes about because of the West's need to protect and support the state of Iraq, which for a brief period looked as though it might be over- run by Islamic State.

So, Western intervention fails and so does Western non-intervention. The terrorist and extremist groups of the Middle East have hatred of the West as a central part of their ideology and leaving the Middle East entirely to its own devices guarantees continuing attacks on the West.

Not only did Western intervention fail in the Middle East, so did Western liberalism. There is a close continuity between George W. Bush's second inaugural address and Barack Obama's Cairo speech. Both outlined an American vision of liberalism triumphing in the Middle East. Because Obama was more popular, his speech perhaps had more effect.

You can make the case, and some Obama partisans do, that Obama's Cairo speech led to the Arab Spring. But the Arab Spring has been an unmitigated disaster in the Middle East.

Is this a counsel of despair? Where do we go from here?

The emergence of Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Deputy Prime Minister in Egypt following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and President since June 2014 perhaps points the way forward and it does so by re-creating a very old relationship between Washington and the Middle East. Sisi is no democrat. Neither is he a murderous, bloodthirsty dictator. Nor is he an enemy of the West. He does provide stability and he certainly assists Western interests in the Middle East.

He now enjoys backing from Washington in the way many Middle East regimes did throughout the Cold War. This was often one of the endless Arab complaints about the US — that it backed dictators in the Middle East. In fact it always urged moderation and reform on its allies but it understood the overwhelming importance of stability and basic governing coherence.

So that is the least bad future — Cold War-style involvement in the Middle East, cold-eyed and strategically hard-headed, with an emphasis on state stability, regimes that do not commit genocide and do not attack us, and leave political reform for another day. It's not that inspiring but it has a chance of working.

** End of article