by Zafar Bangash (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1432)
The uprisings in the Muslim East (Middle East) took virtually everyone by surprise including those in the forefront of these movements. They could hardly believe, especially in Tunisia and the sleepy backwaters of North Africa.
The uprisings in the Muslim East (Middle East) took virtually everyone by surprise including those in the forefront of these movements. They could hardly believe, especially in Tunisia and the sleepy backwaters of North Africa, that they would be able to drive General Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power so quickly. After all Tunisian beaches crowded with bikini-clad women were hardly conducive to revolutionary fervor. But the unthinkable happened, sooner rather than later. When the people of Egypt rose up, it was widely believed that their copycat operations would not get very far. Hosni Mubarak, the West’s favorite Middle Eastern tyrant and close ally of Zionist Israel was too important and too big to fall. This “too big to fall (or fail)” theory has long bitten the dust.
It would be wrong to assume, however, that these movements will have smooth sailing even after driving two dictators from power or because their cause is just. Dictators may not have mass support but they do not rule in a vacuum. There are networks and institutions that sustain them in power. More importantly, there are external players whose geostrategic interests are intimately tied to these dictators. This explains the conduct of the US, members of the EU and Israel. They had all supported Ben Ali, Mubarak and even the mercurial colonel Muammar Qaddafi but are now trying to present themselves as friends of the people. The most glaring example is that of Libya. Documents retrieved from Qaddafi’s intelligence ministry show that he had collaborated with the CIA and Britain’s MI6 but the West is now trying to present itself as if it has been opposed to his dictatorial regime all along.
There are two other battles underway in the Muslim East. One is the battle for perception and the other for co-opting these movements. The West is trying to present itself as champion of the people’s movements, given that it presents freedom as a universal value that is wedded to secular, Western forms of governance, representation, and civil society. Libya and Syria are cited as examples. There are elements of truth in both. But what about Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Jordan; do the people there not deserve to have representative governments? In Bahrain, the US is backing the dictatorial regime while the Saudis have even sent in troops, using American weapons and personnel carriers, to crush the people’s uprising. The House of Saud is considered a close US ally and must, therefore, be supported. The West’s concern, like its morality, is selective.
The co-optation process is also closely linked with the uprisings in Libya and Syria. While both regimes enjoyed cordial relations with western imperialist powers, more so in Libya than in Syria, the imperialists now claim they are championing the people’s cause. Western arms and mercenaries have been utilized against both. Regrettably, some segments of the Islamic movement have also fallen for this charm offensive. Perhaps in their eagerness to dislodge long-entrenched dictators, the people overlooked the true nature of western imperialism. They will pay a heavy price for being so shortsighted.
For Islamic movements and other people struggling for justice and peace, it is imperative to have a clear understanding of the issues involved. They have made clear what they do not want: the present dictatorial regimes and the instruments of oppression that keep them in power, but where they want to go and how they will get there, are equally crucial questions they must answer. It is imperative they know where they are going. It is not enough to drive out one dictator so that his seat of power can be occupied by another or worse, a munafiq western puppet spouting anti-western rhetoric but working to advance the West’s secular agenda and be in charge of affairs on their behalf. That would be disastrous for their struggle and the sacrifices they have made so willingly.
In order to avoid serious setbacks, these movements must ensure that they do allow dissension to emerge within their ranks. It is often tempting to start demanding positions or favors even before the old system has been completely dismantled. In fact, an even more basic trap the people must avoid is to assume that the old system can be fine-tuned and that honest managers can make it work better. Systems and institutions assume a life of their own and develop their own interests. Initially, some institutions may cooperate with the revolutionaries but ultimately their own interests come to the fore. This is where the revolutionaries lacking experience lose out.
While these movements struggle to regain their dignity and honor, they must take ownership of Islamic movements in their respective countries. They must rise above parochial or national interests. The struggle of the people in Egypt is not separate from that of the people in Palestine. They all face a common enemy that assumes different names and forms. Mubarak, Qaddafi or Ben Ali were and are no different than Benjamin Netanyahu, Nicolas Sarkozy or Barack Obama. Once this point is internalized, they will be better equipped to face the undoubted challenges and problems that lie ahead. Their most crucial challenge is to know where they want to go. Islamic Iran offers the best example of how to deal with these challenges. The leaders of these movements would do well to coordinate their struggles with leaders of the Islamic Republic.