People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 43

October 27, 2013




Egypt and the End of Arab Spring


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE “Arab Spring” has finally faded out --- along with all the hoopla of western style democracy taking root in the region. Only Iran in the region has been able to hold elections every four years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The elections there, despite some checks 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 the 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 the 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 Indians, Khaled el Bakly, claims that he does not view the happenings in Egypt as the end of the road for Arab Spring and for the growth of democracy in the region. He said that the Egyptian army only intervened when the Muslim Brotherhood refused to listen to the voices of a majority of the Egyptian people and went resolutely ahead to enshrine a constitution that would have given dictatorial powers to the presidency. He pointed out that there was no article for the impeachment of the president in the proposed new constitution that the former ruling party had drafted. The army leadership, he says, 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 signed the petition demanding the dismissal of the Morsi 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 further insisted that the military has not usurped power and that a clear roadmap for the holding of elections is in place. Bakly said that elections would be held within seven to nine months and that he expected all the political parties, including the Brotherhood, to participate. With its top leadership either in jail or hiding, however, the Muslim Brothers are unlikely to take the bait. It is only recently that the Egyptian authorities have soft-pedalled the talk about banning the organisation. Many observers of the region are predicting that Egypt could experience the kind of bloody scenario that was witnessed in Algeria after the army had stepped in to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from coming to power in 1991. A brutal civil war followed in which more than a hundred thousand people perished. Relative calm could be restored in Algeria only after more than a decade. Egyptian officials say that they are prepared for any eventuality and are confident of negating any threat posed by terrorism to national unity.  


Washington, which had invested a lot of time and resources in cultivating the Muslim Brothers, now finds itself between a rock and a hard place in Egypt. People on both sides of the Egyptian divide are looking on the West with suspicion. The interim Egyptian government has distanced itself from Morsi’s full-throated endorsement of the jihadis in Syria and has barred Egyptians from going to Syria to wage a war. Cairo also voiced its objections to western military strikes against Syria. The military led government is also not discouraging the moves by the Tamarod movement, which played a key role in organising anti-Morsi demonstrations, from collecting signatures demanding the abrogation of the Camp David peace accord with Israel.   




Washington’s policy on countries not aligned to it is diametrically different. In the last week of August, the Obama administration had again resorted to sabre rattling on Syria only to step back at the eleventh hour. The spurious “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, which was used to dismember Yugoslavia and later engineer regime change in countries like Libya, is sought to be replicated in Syria. From all likelihood, the Arab Spring which had engendered great hopes in the Arab street is going to end in an orgy of bloodbath. An American led attack on Syria has the potential to unleash a wider war. Syrian officials have strongly hinted that any American attack on their country would lead to the targeting of Israel. Israel has anyway been carrying out its own military strikes against 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 from the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. The intelligence, according to US and British media, was based on “official chatter” in Damascus intercepted by Israeli intelligence. British parliamentarians and western security experts have refused to fall for the “sexed up” evidence. The Obama administration, which seemed intent on striking Syria with Cruise missiles, had to backtrack later. Earlier, 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 the Al Qaeda and the assorted Salafist and Takfiri groups fighting for the overthrow of the Syrian government. As recent events have shown, a tacit US-Israel-Saudi alliance is in play to negate the positive gains of the Arab Spring. The Palestinian cause has been put on the backburner as the focus of the West and its allies is to preserve the authoritarian regimes that also have, coincidentally, huge hydrocarbon deposits.   Reports are rife in the region about the growing cooperation between the CIA, Saudi intelligence and the Mossad to destabilise Syria and Lebanon and to weaken Iran eventually. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, recently made a highly publicised visit to Moscow in a futile bid to persuade President Vladimir Putin to ditch the government of Bashar al Assad in lieu for multi-billion dollar arms contracts. According to reports in the Arab media, Prince Bandar had warned President Putin in early August that there was no escape from “the military option” in Syria. The missile attack that Washington was planning 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 set back 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, viz the UAE and Kuwait, had assured full diplomatic and financial support to the Egyptian military in their move against the elected civilian government. The three countries also pledged a massive 12 billion dollars to Egypt as soon as the military took over, dwarfing the annual 1.4 billion dollars provided by the US to Egypt. There was some misplaced fear in Cairo that the Obama administration could cut off the annual aid to Egypt. Israel and Egypt are the biggest recipients of American aid. US congressional laws mandate that the US military aid has to be cut if the administration officially characterised the military takeover as a coup. No such thing has happened. The Egyptian military is almost totally dependent on US arms supplies and spares. The Americans still have a lot of leverage in Egypt but have chosen not to wield it and have instead 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 outsize influence in Syria and Egypt today because they have the field virtually to themselves,” observed Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of an American journal, Foreign Affairs, in a recent column in the New York Times.


As we know, the Saudi monarchy has no love lost for the Muslim Brothers. The removal of Hosni Mubarak and the victory of the Egyptian Brothers in the elections last year was a shock to the Saudi rulers. But this antipathy did not prevent the Saudis and their allies from continuing to support the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in countries like 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 now 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 their efforts to marginalise the Brothers as a political force.


The Brotherhood branch in Egypt was, till the other day, being courted by the US and the West and being presented to the rest of the world as illustrations of moderate Islamists with whom the international community could do business. The Morsi government showed no signs of deviating from the foreign policy line or the neo-liberal economic policies of the Mubarak government. It swore by the Camp David agreement and peace 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 Muslim Brotherhood is being accused of encouraging “terrorism” by the Egyptian government and its main ally at the moment, Saudi Arabia, though the large protests it launched were generally peaceful. Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, publicly pledged to wholeheartedly support the Egyptian military to root out “terrorism, extremism and sedition.” And in an unprecedented move, the King implicitly criticised the US 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 Brothers and the Obama administration had cultivated strong links with the Brotherhood leadership.




The recent events in the region have once again given a new lease of life to the long term American game plan of further balkanising the region. This idea was openly aired by the neo-conservatives who dominated the Bush administration. The doyen among American diplomats, the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, 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 have sounded the death knell for the Arab Spring and democratic movement in the region. 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 the US secretary of state, John Kerry’s remark that the army intervention in Egypt was aimed at “restoring democracy.” An important factor that was behind the Egyptian revolution that overthrew Mubarak was the plunging living standards of the people. Some 40 per cent of the people were living on less than three dollars 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 had succeeded after being led “from behind” by the US. Today the country is increasingly plunging into a vortex of political and economic chaos as various regions and tribes jockey for control of the energy resources of the country. Islamist militant groups have ceased to be under the control of the foreign powers which had armed them to the teeth in the successful bid to overthrow the government led by Muammar Gaddafi.


From the outset, the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring were channelled by the West and their conservative allies in the region to destabilise the republican governments in the Arab world which had an independent foreign policy. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were triggered by popular upheavals and without the consent of the West. The then Tunisian president Ben Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak were loyal allies of Washington. To control the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring and stem the tide of genuine change, Washington and its allies in the region devised the strategy of unleashing sectarian forces in the region.


The bogey of an emerging “Shia crescent,” comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Hezbollah 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 countries like 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 population of minority Shias.