Egypt has halted the drive to derail the Arab revolution
The uprisings across the Arab world have been crushed, hijacked and poisoned. But Egyptians have taken back control
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 November 2011 22.20 GMT
Until the last few days pessimism about the Arab revolution had become the norm. After the euphoria of Tunisia and Egypt, the "Arab spring" had become bleak autumn. Savage repression, foreign intervention, civil war, counter-revolution and the return of the old guard had become the order of the day. To some there had been no revolution at all and only strategically marginal Tunisia would be allowed to undergo a genuine democratic transformation.
But now the revolutionary wave has broken again in Egypt, as hundreds of thousands have defied lethal violence to reclaim authority from a military regime that had no intention of letting it go. After throwing Hosni Mubarak overboard and conceding a tightly managed electoral and constitional process, the generals, who control vast commercial interests, had clamped down on the popular movement, jailing and torturing thousands, attacking demonstrations and provoking sectarian conflict.
But it was their attempt to grab permanent constitutional power that reignited the uprising and brought them into conflict with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. Now the army junta has once again been forced to make serious concessions and may yet be brought down if it can be prevented from isolating the mass of protesters from the wider population.
Where the US and its allies still determined to maintain Egypt as a docile asset stand on all this can be judged from their reactions to the killing of at least 38 demonstrators and injury of more than 1,500 others. "Authority has to be restored", the Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt explained, while the White House has repeatedly called for restraint "on all sides" just as it did in January and February, when Mubarak's forces killed 850 in three weeks.
Since the day the Egyptian dictator was ousted there has been a determined drive by the western powers, their Gulf allies and the old regimes to buy off, crush or hijack the Arab uprisings. In Tunisia and Egypt, US and Saudi money has poured in to bolster allies. The Obama administration allocated $120m for "promoting democracy" in both countries, while Jordan the west's favourite, if shaky, Arab police state is now the second largest per capita recipient of US aid after Israel.
The second approach has been to back the crushing of protests by force. In March the US gave Saudi Arabia and the UAE the green light to invade Bahrain, home to the US 5th Fleet, and help suppress the democratic movement reportedly in exchange for Arab League support for western intervention in Libya. The regime's own sponsored report into the crackdown details the kind of killings, torture and mass detention that followed.
The third tactic has been for the west and its autocratic Arab allies to put themselves at the head of uprisings which is what happened in Libya, where Nato's military intervention was made possible by Qatar and other authoritarian Gulf states. The result was the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, an estimated 30,000 dead and a new order founded on ethnic cleansing, torture and detention without trial. But from Nato's perspective, the newly formed Tripoli administration at least seems firmly pro-western.
It's this return of former colonial powers to the Arab world to reclaim oil concessions in Libya, following the occupation of Iraq, that has led Gamal Abdel Nasser's former confidant Mohamed Heikal to talk recently of the threat of an effective new "Sykes-Picot agreement" the carve-up between Britain and France after the first world war and a redivision of spoils in the region.
And, as the months have passed, another weapon, religious sectarianism, has been deployed to head off or divert the challenge of the Arab awakening. Linked to hostility to the influence of Shia Iran, it was crucial to the Gulf mobilisation to suppress the revolt in majority-Shia Bahrain. And fuelled by the post-invasion conflict in Iraq, it has been the Saudi government's main propaganda tool to isolate protests in its predominantly Shia oil-rich eastern province.
But it is also central to the increasingly dangerous conflict in Syria. And it helps explain the very different response to the Assad regime's bloody repression, which has led to about 3,500 deaths since March, and that in US and Saudi-backed Yemen, where 1,500 were estimated to have been killed even two months ago. While the Yemeni president has today been in Riyadh signing a Gulf-sponsored deal to hand over to his deputy with immunity, Syria is under sanctions, has been suspended from the Arab League and faces the threat of foreign military intervention.
The difference isn't mainly about the level of violence or Assad's continuing resistance to implementing his own pledges of elections and reform. It's that his Alawite-based regime is allied with Iran and the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement against the US, Israel and its Arab clients.
Now what began as a peaceful protest movement in Syria is morphing into a fully fledged armed insurrection and a vicious sectarian conflict on the brink of civil war. With neither side able to prevail, western-backed opposition leaders are increasingly calling for foreign intervention and a Libyan-style no-fly zone. And even though Nato states have ruled it out in the absence of UN backing, that could change if the conflict tipped over into large-scale fighting and refugee crises. One way to avoid such a regional disaster would be a negotiated political settlement in Syria underpinned by Turkey and Iran though it may be that Turkey's denunciations of the Assad government have gone beyond the point where such agreement is viable.
What's clear is that the upheavals across the Arab world are intimately connected, and that sectarianism and foreign intervention are enemies of its fledgling revolution. A crucial factor in the persistence of authoritarian regimes has been their support by western powers determined to maintain strategic control. And any genuinely democratic Middle East will inevitably be more independent.
That's why the reignition of the revolution in Egypt, the pivot of the Arab world, has the potential not only to accelerate the democratisation of the country itself but change the dynamic across the region and strike a blow against the hydra-headed attempts to stifle its renaissance.