New political alignments in the Muslim East

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Rabi' al-Awwal 20, 1434 2013-02-01

News & Analysis

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 12, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1434)

The Muslim East has undergone radical change over the last two years. There are new political alignments that spell trouble for the US.

That the Muslim East (aka Middle East) is in a state of flux is undeniable. Several dictators have already been consigned to the dustbin of history. Some like Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were driven from power through mass popular pressure. Others like Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of Libya were first ousted through foreign intervention and then Western-armed thugs murdered him in cold blood. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was eased out through Saudi intervention but allowed to escape the fate of the others. The deal also left his family members entrenched in positions they had occupied when Saleh was in power. He can hardly complain about the hand he was dealt; he escaped the fate that befell Qaddafi.

In other countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — there are uprisings of varying intensity. Their chances of success are difficult to predict. The most persistent trouble spots are Bahrain and Syria. In fact, the two stand at opposite poles. The minority Bahraini regime has the full backing of the West as well as the Saudi rulers. The latter believe, perhaps with some justification that their own survival depends on keeping the minority Khalifa family in power in Bahrain. The majority population in Bahrain is Shi‘i but the ruling minority — it is more accurate to say the minority ruling family — is Sunni that has usurped all power and controls all state resources. Despite harsh clamp-down and brutal tactics, the regime has failed to subdue the people’s peaceful protests whose demand centres on fundamental rights. This is most worrying for the regime and its foreign backers, especially the Saudis who are facing a crisis of their own: succession as well as demands for people’s rights in the kingdom. With senior members of the family heading to their graves rather rapidly, it is more a race to the grave than to power. Were there no other problems in the region, the question of succession would still be a major worry for the Saudis.

The situation in Syria is the exact opposite of what is taking place in Bahrain. In Syria, external powers — the West, Turkey and Gulf Arabian regimes — are all financing and arming the rebels to fight and overthrow the government of Bashar al-Asad. It must be pointed out that even if not popularly elected, al-Asad does not lack internal support as Western propaganda has tried to make people believe. Nor is he dependent on foreign mercenaries for survival as the regime in Bahrain is. Manama has recruited Pakistanis, Jordanians and Yemenis to crush the people’s uprising. In Syria, however, foreign mercenaries have been railroaded in to fight government forces.

While these developments are underway, contours of the new alignments are becoming clear. For instance, the traditional power brokers in the Muslim East — Saudi Arabia and Egypt (and we are ignoring their foreign masters) — are now aligned on opposite sides. Before Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were allies in keeping a lid on the Islamic movement and protecting US-Zionist interests in the region. With the election of Mohamed Mursi as president of Egypt through popular support, the Saudis feel isolated. They also feel vulnerable because they do not have the wherewithal to face a major challenge. Crushing their own Shi‘i population, which is concentrated in the east of the country, is relatively easy because the Saudis have historically used sectarianism as a weapon to divide Muslims and help isolate the country’s Shi‘i minority. The challenge, however, has now transcended sectarianism. With 30,000 political prisoners in the country, discontent has spread to the rest of the population as well. It will not be easy to hoodwink people by playing the sectarian card. Many Saudis are well educated and want a say in how rulers are chosen and the manner in which decisions are made.

The new alignments emerging in the region are centered round different poles. One pole is Islamic Iran. Aligned with it in some form of a loose arrangement are Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, or Hizbullah to be precise, as well as Islamic Jihad in Palestine. The other pole is centered on Saudi Arabia but apart from its six partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman), it has little other support to count on. Even within the GCC not everyone toes the Saudi line. Qatar, a good example, is pursuing a policy distinctly different from that of Saudi Arabia even if there are commonalities between them. There is also trouble brewing in Kuwait. Topping all this is the fact that the US is no longer able to dictate to others in the region. Thanks to the mauling its military got in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bitter experience it had in Libya, the US no longer has the stomach or the ability to impose its will on others.

Yet another pole is centered on Egypt. President Mursi has moved quickly to assert Egypt’s position as a leading regional player. This has not gone down well either in Riyadh or Ankara. Before Mursi’s election, Turkey had donned this mantle and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented himself as the “leader” of the Muslim world. Not many Muslims were impressed since he openly espoused secular ideas. In fact, when he visited Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster, his advice to al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon, the largest political party, was that they should adopt a secular constitution. His hosts politely but firmly rebuffed him. Turkey has also abandoned its “zero problem” policy with the manner in which it has conducted itself, especially in Syria and by spoiling relations with most neighbours.

President Mursi has been more careful. For instance, he has kept channels of communications open with all parties and appears to strive for a more balanced approach. His proposal for a Contact Group of Four offered both Turkey and Saudi Arabia a way out of the Syrian imbroglio but neither seems prepared to accept it. Events in Syria have escalated and taken a turn for the worse but neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia can come out unscathed. The Turks have the most to lose both in terms of Syrian refugees seeking asylum as well as exacerbation of the Kurdish problem for Turkey. On January 2 Turkey opened talks with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The talks centered round whether Ocalan would agree to disarm his followers in return for a greater measure of autonomy for the Kurds.

Ocalan is of course aware of Turkey’s dilemma. He already knows that the Kurds in Iraq are operating as a de facto government while in Syria they have gained a large measure of autonomy in their region simply because Syrian forces have withdrawn to urban centers. Under such circumstances, why would Ocalan agree to disarm his followers? He can get a better deal — as have the Kurds in Iraq who have the backing of the US as well as Turkey — if he holds out.

Aware of these developments, the US has moved to prepare for the worst-case scenario. At the end of December 2012, it was announced that the US was going to deploy troops in 35 countries in Africa. The ostensible purpose was to confront al-Qaeda’s growing threat in Mali and to provide training to African armies. Such training is almost always a prelude to deeper involvement on the continent as well as more specifically in the region. When details about US troop deployment were announced, it became clear that major contingents of US forces would be deployed in Algeria, Libya, South Sudan, Mali, Kenya and Uganda.

Deployment of US troops in Algeria and Libya has not escaped astute observers. These troops are there for two specific purposes: first, the US would like to have as large a military presence in the region as possible prior to the overthrow of the Saudi regime and its minions in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The second is to surround Egypt, which is gradually moving out of the shadow of the US even if the new leadership in Cairo is not entirely pursuing the path of Muslim unity.

Even as new alignments begin to take shape in the Muslim East, Muslims should be wary of US and French involvement in Africa. They are not coming to help the Africans; their motives are completely sinister. President Francois Hollande has already announced that French troops would stay in Africa as long as necessary to eliminate the “threat of al-Qaeda.” This is a bogey that is invoked to justify Western military aggression in any part of the world. In Barack Obama’s second term as president, Africa is likely to loom large on America’s radar screen of foreign adventures now that his forces have been driven out of Iraq and about to be expelled from Afghanistan.

At the same time, the specter of Saudi-instigated sectarianism should not be discounted. This would prove extremely detrimental to the Islamic movement’s quest to achieve justice and dignity free from foreign intervention in Muslim societies. Unless Muslims wake up to the ill-effects of this toxic ideology, they may suffer lasting damage to their societies.

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