MER - Mid-East Realities - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 6 September 2002:
'America wants to wage war on all of us'
'Regime change' seen as new term for old enemy: colonisation
By David Hirst in Cairo
The Guardian - 5 September: There is no better place to take the pulse of Arab and Muslim sentiment than Cairo, hub of the two great movements which swept the region in recent times, the pan-Arab secular nationalism of which President Nasser was the champion, and the "political Islam" which came into its own with Nasserism's failure and decline.
Today, from the air-conditioned thinktanks on the banks of the Nile to the sweltering alleyways of the splendid but dilapidated mediaeval city, the preoccupation with the two things that seem most fateful for the future - the Israeli-Palestinian struggle and US plans for a possible war against Iraq - is overwhelming.
"Bin Laden may have lost a lot of his appeal," says Dia Rashwan, an expert on Islamist fundamentalism, "but that doesn't mean the US isn't hated. It is, more than ever, and more now from an Arab than an Islamic standpoint."
In a workshop in the City of the Dead, Muhammad Ahmad carries on the ancient, glass-blowing craft of his forefathers on a day when, even without the heat of his furnace, the temperature stands at 45C. "What makes you think that Bin Laden really did it?" he asks, giving voice to a still widespread popular suspicion. "Bush is just using him to put us down." He adds: "The future is dark."
Indeed, it is much darker for most Arabs than it might have appeared in the immediate aftermath of that apocalyptic atrocity in New York and Washington, because, one year on, it seems clearer to them in its consequences. It is a momentous double crisis, an external and an internal one. Long maturing, the two are inextricably intertwined. Osama bin Laden brought both to a head.
As they see it, the US's post-September 11 "war on terror" now boils down to an assault on themselves. For in the Bush universe of good versus evil, it is essentially they, with Iran thrown in, who are the evil ones. In the collision to come, the Arabs risk further blows to all those ideals and aspirations - independence, dignity, the unity and collective purpose of the greater Arab "nation" - which, after centuries of foreign conquest and control, the pan-Arabism of Nasser so triumphantly, if defectively, embodied.
Internally they are ill-equipped to meet the external challenge, racked as they are by all manner of social, economic, cultural and institutional sicknesses. These, the US says, are the very conditions which threw up Bin Ladenism. Few Arab opinion-makers would dispute it, or doubt their societies' desperate need of root-and-branch reform, ushering in democracy, human rights, accountability. There is no more compelling measure of that than the UN's newly released Arab human development report. It describes a region which has fallen behind all others, including sub-Saharan Africa, in most of the main indices of progress and development; whose 280 million inhabitants, despite vast oil wealth, have a lower GNP than Spain; whose annual translation of foreign books is one-fifth of Greece'.
A prime cause of this backwardness, say the report's Arab authors, is that the peoples of the region are the world's least free, with the lowest levels of popular participation in government. "Those who wonder why Afghanistan became a lure for some young Arabs and Muslims," wrote Jordanian columnist Yasser Abu-Hilala, "need only read this report, which explains the phenomenon of alienation in our societies and shows how those who feel they have no stake in them can turn to violence."
Yet most Arab regimes have ignored this damning verdict. "The fact is," says Nader Fergany, the report's Egyptian lead author, "that governments that were repressive in the first place have in the past year become more so. They have not learned the lesson of September 11 - but neither has the US."
In what measure are foreigners, or Arabs themselves, responsible for their condition? Bin Laden has greatly sharpened that perennial Arab debate. The west's sins are deemed to have begun with the European carve-up of the region after the first world war and the creation of Israel; these betrayals and humiliations continued with US-led support of repressive, corrupt or reactionary regimes enlisted as bulwarks against communism or accomplices in the quest for an impossible, because unjust, settlement of the Palestinian conflict.
"For us," says Muhammad Said, a columnist at Egypt's leading newspaper, al-Ahram, "the west always preferred control to democracy. Now 90% of the problem flows from the Arab-Israel conflict, that continuous reminder of our colonised past."
Never before, in Arab eyes, has the US acted so blatantly in favour of its Israeli protege, and for domestic reasons - the triple alliance of Jewish lobby, neo-conservative ideologues and the Christian fundamentalist right - which take little or no stock of rights or wrongs on the ground.
For Makram Muhammad Ahmad, editor of al-Musawar newspaper and confidant of President Mubarak, this amounts to a sickness liable to be at least as catastrophic as the Arabs' own. "It's terrible that a weak and ignorant man like Bush can be used this way - you might expect it from third world countries, but from the world's only superpower!"
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Arabs say, the US did - with its talk of a Palestinian state - seem to have learned something; it began to distance itself from those cumulative policies of which Bin Ladenism was the ultimate, evil fruit.
"Palestine is not only crucial in itself," says Muhammad Sid-Ahmad, another al-Ahram commentator, "it is symbolic of US intentions everywhere. Through Palestine, you can now see that the US just doesn't care to look for root causes anywhere. It has adopted the Israeli definition of terror, and that shapes its policies for the whole region."
These policies are now so detested that they have raised the potential threat to US interests to unprecedented levels. To retain its Middle East dominance it has to invest resources commensurate with the threat. It can no longer rely on friendly proxies, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, for they themselves will be undermined by their connivance with it, nor on the mere "containment" of enemies such as Saddam Hussein.
So the Arab world, says Said, now risks being "subjected to direct or indirect colonialism". And the very "backwardness of the Arab order makes the pursuit of such imperial designs possible". For Arab societies are seen as "incapable of modernising on their own, thus providing a natural gateway to colonisation".
Such neo-colonialism involves "regime change" by force for those the US deems beyond the pale, and the imposition of reforms, from the school curriculum to their position on Palestine, on those who remain within it. Of the two explicit candidates for regime change, Iraq now has priority over the Palestinians. Indeed Iraq has emerged as the key arena where the battle between good and evil will be joined.
The idea, says Said, is to "terminate" the Palestinian question by war at the expense of the Arabs as a national group. With the overthrow of President Saddam, the US hopes to make this richly endowed country the linchpin of a whole new pro-American geopolitical order. Witnessing such a demonstration of US will and power other regimes would have to bend to US purposes or suffer the same fate, be they such traditional, "terrorist-sponsoring" opponents as Syria, or traditional friends, such as Saudi Arabia, held to spawn terrorism through their misrule or a general "culture" of religious extremism.
For individual Gulf states that do not submit, says Said, "There will be nothing to stop regimes from being changed or political successions being manipulated in the way the English used to do in the 19th century."
There is a wall of almost universal Arab hostility to a US assault on Iraq. But there is also a single, very telling breach in it. However fractious, opportunist or incompetent some, at least, of the exiled US-backed Iraqi opposition may be, they cannot be dismissed as unrepresentative of the Iraqi people, who - unlike other Arabs - suffer directly beneath President Saddam's monstrous tyranny.
It is an embarrassing moral dilemma. The US hawks have tried in vain to establish President Saddam's complicity with Bin Laden and 9/11. But that failure cannot disguise another, much deeper affinity between the two: for after Bin Laden what more disastrous personification of the internal Arab sickness that all right-thinking Arabs yearn to cure than the Iraqi dictator, what country in more dire need of democratic reform than Iraq?
Egyptian analyst Wahid Abdul-Meguid laments that Arab objections to a US assault "amount to solidarity with Saddam against his own people". If it were just the Arab regimes it would not be so bad, but the truth is that the objections also come from Arabs who oppose their own, albeit less brutally despotic regimes, for essentially the same reasons as the Iraqis do theirs.
If Arabs really believed that, in removing President Saddam, the US were bent on promoting a democratic order in his place, they would be readier to join the Iraqi opposition in tolerating such a war at least. But they don't. They point out that even if the expected campaign does, in principle, incorporate some reformist good intentions, so did those earlier western subjugations of the region from whose consequences they suffer till today.
They will see it, primarily, as an act of aggression aimed not just at Iraq, but at the whole Arab world; and what will make it supremely intolerable is that it will be done on behalf of, Israel, whose acquisition of a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction seems to be as permissible as theirs is an abomination.
Their fear is not only that Israel will become - with the possible exception of Britain - the only other country to join a US onslaught, but that Ariel Sharon will exploit it to kill two birds with one stone. He will combine the completion of the Israeli "war on terror" with another great breakthrough in Zionism's still unfinished grand design, another mass expulsion of Palestinians of which much of the Israeli right has long dreamed.
Destroying President Saddam, like destroying the Taliban, could be one thing, though not nearly so simple; managing what comes after could be another. For most Arabs, the overall conditions, largely of Washington's own, now unprecedentedly partisan pro-Israeli making, in which the US embarks on such an enterprise would seem to all but guarantee its failure - and a consequent success for Bin Laden.
After all, he was always something more than just the crazed, archaic Islamist visionary; Iraq, Palestine - and US conduct towards them - always ranked high on his anti-colonial, political and nationalist agenda. That is why, says the Palestinian commentator Abdul Jabbar Adwan, he now "owes an enormous debt of gratitude" to Mr Bush for the "political services" he has rendered him since 9/11; far outstripping any commercial ones in the days when "the Bushes and the bin Ladens" did oil business together.
The price of failure, in so strategic, complex and volatile a region, would make the post-war falterings in Afghanistan pale into insignificance, exacerbating both the Arabs' internal crisis and its external consequences. The Arabs probably would not be the only ones to pay the price.
"The US may be preparing a big surprise for the
region," warns Lebanese commentator Saad Mehio, "but the Middle East may
be preparing an equally big one for the Americans. At any rate, no one
should forget that it has been the most renowned source of surprises through
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