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A System Turned Upside Down

The Tunisian revolution has wiped out the Ben Ali system, and the Egyptian revolution is about to eliminate the Mubarak system after the fall of the president.  No doubt, the epoch of unlimited domination in the Arab world is coming to its end.  After decades of despotic, patronage-based regimes, the Arab peoples seem determined to democratize their societies.  All the Ben Alis, Mubaraks, Bouteflikas, Salehs, or Gaddafis will soon be forgotten.  With their exit, not only the Western democracies — and this is the irony of history — but also Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is going to have a huge problem.

Not without reason do the worries of Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron, and Netanyahu about the loss of “stability” exceed by far their joy over a democratic awakening in the Arab states.  We Miss Mubarak! — this headline in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz brings the aforementioned paradox to the point.  The days of Israeli occupation of Palestine may be numbered.  A look at the history of the embedding of the Middle East into the US-dominated hegemonic system may help to better understand the deeper reasons behind the change in this region.

Egypt Replaces Iran

The epoch of democratization, modernization, and self-determination in the Middle East basically started in 1951 with the assumption of power by the first democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran.  Instead of breaking out in a dance of joy about the new wind to spread Western values into the Orient, the governments of Great Britain and the United States tried to crush the democracy movement in Iran.  There were two reasons for this curious contrast between occidental and oriental democracy: First of all, Mossadegh wanted to decide about his country’s oil himself, which did not fit Great Britain’s neocolonial interests.  Secondly, he refused to become an appendage of the West against the communist camp during the Cold War.  This consequently led to the boycott of Iranian oil, the demonization of Mossadegh, and eventually his overthrow by a CIA-driven military coup in summer 1953.

Even then, the West traded democracy for stability in the interest of its energy security and anti-Soviet alliances.  On the one hand, the dictatorship of the Shah and the Saudi rulers were chosen as the two main pillars of this stability and armed from that point on.  On the other hand, Israel became the strategic bridgehead for this hegemonic system in the midst of the Arab world.  As a matter of fact, the close military cooperation between the US with Israel also began in the course of the 1960s.  Then, however, in 1979 when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s system collapsed due to the anger of a nation humiliated and deprived of democracy, the US replaced Iran by Egypt, in order to establish a new anchor of stability in the most geo-strategically important region for US hegemony.  The Tehran-Riyadh-Tel Aviv axis turned into the Cairo-Riyadh-Tel Aviv axis, and thereafter Mubarak took over the role of the overthrown Shah, including the military aid that until then had reached Tehran.  This new geo-strategic axis developed through bilateral relationships — on the one hand between the US and these three states; and on the other hand between Mubarak’s Egypt and Israel — as well as through very close collaboration between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Egypt became the regional protector of the Arab dictatorships of Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, and Jordan that for the most part simultaneously depended on the US.  This new pact among the West, Israel, and the Arab dictators veiled three anti-democratic developments that are now coming to an end almost simultaneously.

Once and For All

Firstly, the end of the total control of the oil in the Middle East: With terms like “stability” and “energy security,” the usually market-oriented West prescribed the repeal of the market laws of supply and demand for the world fossil fuel market.  The West induced an excess oil supply with the help of Saudi Arabia.  Instead of sharply rising prices for exhaustible resources, a moderate level of prices was enforced.  Nevertheless, the era of the politico-militarily established dumping prices for oil and natural gas is inexorably coming to an end.  China and India are determined to secure their supplies at any price and, with their big appetite for energy, have established de facto free trade in world energy markets.

Secondly, the end of the dictatorial regimes: Authoritarian patronage-based regimes were able to hide under the Western umbrella of stability for several decades.  Every one of these regimes did as it pleased with its own people, with Western assistance, as long as it guaranteed the desired stability.  Saddam Hussein was openly supported during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and even armed with chemical weapons because his system of violence fit the Western definition of stability in the region.  He was eliminated when he dared to disturb this stability with his invasion of Kuwait.

Mubarak, however, became the most loyal ally of the West because he was game for anything against the will of the Egyptian people.  His predecessors Nasser and Sadat were certainly no democrats either, but for Egypt they were nonetheless heroes because they defended the Arabs’ dignity.  Mubarak in contrast traded self-respect for two billion dollars in US aid annually, in order to finance his system.  In the last few weeks, the Egyptian people ended this era of humiliation once and for all.  The apparently solid pillars of stability desired by the West have been knocked down by the democracy movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan.

Now the Egyptian army, structurally and financially dependent on the US, is expected to take the wind out of the sails of the revolution through partial concessions and semi-democratic reforms in order to save what there is to save of the Western umbrella of stability.  First and foremost, the revolutionary spark is to be prevented from leaping from Egypt on to Saudi Arabia and the Sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.  At the Munich Security Conference, Angela Merkel hypocritically justified the Western attitude towards the democracy movement in the Arab world as a “conflicting relationship between our values and our need for security and stability.”  She forgot to mention that the West up to now has always decided in favor of stability and against democracy — as it did in 1953 in Iran, in 1991 after the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, and in 2006 after the election victory of Hamas in Palestine.

Finally, even Israel’s policy of occupation may be approaching its end: Under the West’s umbrella of stability, Zionism gained a new impetus in the 1960s and 70s.  Zionist hardliners felt encouraged to promote their policy of occupation given Israel’s role as a strategic bridgehead and the pact with Mubarak.  Israel’s peace with Egypt turned into a separate peace, concluded to help accelerate the eviction of Palestinians through continual settlement building and to block the establishment of a Palestinian state.  With the fall of Mubarak, Israel’s most important pillar in the Arab world has now disappeared.

The Only Alternative

It is high time now: the West and Israel must finally recognize that the foundations of their umbrella of stability have irrevocably been eroded.  With the free trade of oil and natural gas from the Middle East, the time is ripe for an end of the US-dominated hegemonic system.  It is only a matter of time before even Israel loses its function as a bridgehead in this system and thus also the unconditional support for its policy of occupation.

Before his election in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to have understood that the star of US dominance in the world is in free fall.  As president, however, under pressure from the oil companies and the military-industrial complex, he became hostage to their short-term interests.  Obama’s idea of “orderly transition of power” in Cairo boils down to trying to delay the end of US dominance in the Middle East as long as possible — but the people’s desire for peace and democracy in the region is unstoppable.

All fundamentalist ideologies — Arab nationalism as well as religious extremism — passed their zenith long ago.  This also applies to Zionist fundamentalism in Israel, which in the long run will have no choice but to seek coexistence with the new democracy movements in the Arab countries, Turkey, and Iran.

Democracy and the willingness for peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East has always been the only rational vision for a region that is rightly regarded as the “Cradle of Civilization” and home to all three religions.  Only the selfish interests of the Western and homegrown elites have so far made sure that this option would remain buried.


Mohssen Massarrat is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Universität Osnabrück.  The original German version of the article was published in Der Freitag on 24 February 2011.  English translation by Monika Goetz.


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