ajor political event such as the uprising in the Arab world has its remote and immediate causes. Regrettably, many political analysts have laid the blame for the political conflagration sweeping across the Arab world on the “sit tight policy” of the autocrats in the region without addressing how the political soils of these Arab countries have been manured and watered for decades by external powers.
The Year 2011 will go down in history as the year of tectonic shift in the Arab world. A shift that generated turbulence in the erstwhile bulwark states of North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia was the epicentre and trailblazer of the waves that changed the political contour of the entire region and beyond. It started spontaneously in reaction to a Tunisian, college graduate fruit seller, who self-immolated himself in reaction to the oppressive political structure prevailing in his country.
The events that followed after the man’s demise acted like a match to a pile of straw and the revolution spread like a dry grassland before a high wind engulfing Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and other Arab states; causing political quakes and cracks along its uncharted path. Even though the immediate cause of the revolution started in Tunisia, this piece upholds that the super powers have their share of blames hence their activities in the cold war era helped to shape the domestic variables that engineered the prevailing waves of revolution.
Both Tunisia and Egypt, as well as Morocco, were cold war bulwark states for the US. These countries were used to checkmate Communist expansionism and to keep intransigent Libya under the lid. Egypt was the most important US cold war ally in North Africa. Successful US president has courted Egypt. The choice of Egypt was dictated by its geographical position and cultural endowment. Its importance surpassed that of Saudi Arabia in terms of geopolitics. The US replied Russia’s cold war moves in North Africa and Middle East by increasing aid and military assistance to Egypt, and trained its personnel as a means of preservation in power of a regime of ideological character, deterrent threat from hostile neighbours.
The US entertained fear that Libya was being used as a base for positioning Soviet arms which could, when time was ripe be used, to go to war in Middle East. The US fear got heightened when it found out that there were 1,750 and East European military technicians in Libya. This came to light after 1969 when Col. Gaddafi expelled American and British forces and quickly closed their bases. It was such capricious behaviour of leaders such as Gaddafi that compelled successful American leaders to modify, abandon or revise major component of American foreign policy towards Africa, Middle East, and elsewhere in response to Moscow’s initiatives. This explains the importance of the these African states undergoing revolutionary evolution now. They were allies of the super powers some decades ago. And in spite of the fact that they were undemocratic states, their autocratic and repressive measures over their citizens were condoned by their political godfathers. The on-going revolution across the Arab world had been smoldering beneath the political surface for decades. It’s in 2011 that it manifested itself to overt expression.
Lamentably, throughout the cold war era, right from the end of World War II, super powers’ policies towards Africa and the Middle East were often determined not how they affected these regions, in terms of democratisation and good governance, but whether they brought advantage or disadvantage to Moscow or Washington. It was the ideological tussle between the two super powers that generated both covert and overt activities in the regions that are experiencing revolution in North Africa and the Middle East today.
President Carter Africa policy made a dramatic change following the steady Soviet military built-up and monitoring situations in Africa. Russia was determined to obtain strategic foothold in Africa. This included securing assured access to modern air and naval facilities as to move effectively, project power and hence influence, while at the same time, poised to undermine the power and influence of the US and its allies. For instance, the significance of the Horn of Africa for the Soviet Union was highly valued because of its geographical position, strategic to both Africa and the Middle East. Soviet stronghold in the Horn at that cold war era was calculated to counter Western naval power, and support client regimes adjacent to the petroleum sea lanes. Foothold around the Horn could also enhance its intervention in the then apartheid South Africa.
It was this disturbing and zero-sum analysis that compelled the US to fratanise with undemocratic leaders of North Africa. The US was quick to establish permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean. It secured air and naval facilities to be used in the region of Northwest Africa and Persian Gulf. We do not have to go too far to grasp the fact that Carter policy had effects on US policy towards Africa military cooperation with the then autocrats in North Africa as well as Somali dictator, Siad Barre and Mobutu of Zaire. Zaire was Washington’s good cold war ally. It used Zaire as buffer against Communist foothold in that part of Africa by making it a gateway for arming UNITA faction led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola against the Popular Movement fot the Liberation of Angola,( MPLA) led by Agostino Neto. While the US built up its naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf accelerated, US official official hastened to define the specific terms of relationship with dictators in Egypt, Kenya and Morocco.
Kissinger policy exhibited inordinate fear of Communism. It led him to adopt a policy of containment premised under clever diplomacy and Realpolitik. And in order to actualise his policy he embraced any African dictator and constitutional monarchy in the Middle East who joined the US fear. Both super powers were ready to assist any of their autocratic client states to quell internal turbulence in their respective regimes in order to prevent each other from exploiting such domestic uprisings to its advantage. This type of assistance meant that, to be in power, theses African autocrats must continue to behave in manner prescribed by its political godfather rather than responding to the aspiration of their people. Little wonder then that these cold war patrons believe that in order to achieve that objective they must maintain blind eyes to the undemocratic regimes and domestic excesses of their satellite states such as Egypt and others.
Consequently, the political upheaval and increasing unrest in the bulwark states in North Africa and Middle East has connection with the cold war. The more the regimes in these states try to please their political godfathers, the more they lose touch with the needs of their people and consequently provoke revolutionary insurgency we are witnessing today..
North Africa is harvesting the bitter fruit from trees planted in the cold war era by the two superpowers. Ronald Reagan tenure exaggerated the fear of Communism. Like his predecessors, he embraced any horrible African dictator in his bid to keep Communism at bay. “I don’t know about you, but I am concerned – scared is the proper word – about what is going on in Africa,” Ronald Reagan once told a radio audience. “Many in America have interpreted our intention in Africa as an extension of our own desire to achieve radical equality and eliminate injustice based on race. I am afraid, that is a naive oversimplification of what really at issue. The basic is a power struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. The African problem, concluded Reagan is Russian weapon aimed at us.” The ideological battle was the major factor and what the autocrats did to their citizens were inconsequential.
But Gaddafi’s design to frustrate Reagan’s road map against Russia compelled Reagan to construct a special policy for Libya. Gaddafi’s political activities vigorously opposed U.S interests in every theater where Reagan operated – in Egypt and Sudan. Libya was said to be behind an attempted coup which precipitated an Egypt – Sudan pact, which was designed against Libya’s penchant for intervention as against a possible “Communist” take over in the Sudan.
Gaddafi also opposed the U.S.interests in Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Somalia, Liberia, and Angola. He opposed the Camp David Accord. He was also patron of various Palestinian groups, as well as revolutionaries in Europe and the Third World. He was a member of a pact with Ethiopia and South Yemen, an anti-American militant sect, which at that time had a wide range of ties to the Soviet Union. Gaddafi’s military establishment during the cold war era was formidable in African terms and included sophisticated equipment purchased largely from the Soviet Union, but also from the West.
Gaddafi adventurism compelled the Reagan administration to elevate him to the status of a very outstanding enemy that must be squarely dealt with. Such perception was translated into action on August 19, 1981, when U.S fighter from the 6th fleet patrolling off the Libyan coast shot down two Libyan warplanes. The shootout was another dramatic event in the noisy war invective between Washington and Tripoli that got exacerbated with the coming of the Reagan administration.
In that period, the Reagan administration apparently believed that exhibition of toughness would win respect for the U.S. from adversaries as well as allies. And that the Soviet Union would be intimidated, the conservative Arab states gladdened, and his European allies impressed. Contrary to his initial perception, there was no evidence that any of these results were achieved. In stead, it strengthened Gaddafi in his own country and throughout the Arab world world. On the home front, Reagan was safe. His muscle flexing brought him flowers of support, particularly from his core constituency, the right wing.
Reagan’s policy towards Libya and Egypt during the cold was was a good example of “bitter enemies and good friends” approach of his foreign policy. Mubarak of Egypt, as could be seen from this analysis has been the political godson of the U.S for decades. As far as Washington saw Libya as a spoiler, it had to cultivate good relationship with Libya’s neighbours. Non of these leaders were democratic. Rather they were autocrats.
When Libya intervened in Chadian civil conflict, Washington’s response was a broad policy of containment. In northeast Africa, his policy was designed to protect three vital regional interests – US Middle-East policy, access to Persian Gulf oil, and the US strategic network that covers the network quadrant of the Indian Ocean. A critical part of this design involved increased military assistance to the government of Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Chad. Addition of Chad was necessitated by Libyan’s involvement in its civil conflict. Washington also found Mobutu of Zaire as a proxy – he sent approximately 2,000 Israeli-trained troops and jets to to support Chadian government forces.
The build-up of a strategic network in the region was designed to enhance U.S power projection capabilities, particularly the ability to support the Rapid Deployment Force and the peacetime naval presence. In order to protect its strategic interests from a backdoor threat, Washington’s attention was drawn to Egypt’s southern neighbours – Sudan and Chad.
Khartoum government was quick to offer the U.S access to military facilities, including Port Sudan. There was also the possibility of allowing the US the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies. It was against this background that the Reagan administration justified its increased assistance to Sudan. Sudan’s cooperation protected US efforts to monitor oil-tanker-routes in the Red Sea. Of more immediate advantage was that it be used to ward off Libyan subversive designs in the region. The Reagan administration felt that no sacrifice would be great to contribute to the demise of Gaddafi. Gaddafi was a menace to the Bulwark states of the US and an impediment for the US to realise its objectives in both Africa and the Middle East.
When covert operations to topple Gaddafi failed, Reagan administration embarked on elimination of Gaddafi, a system I would call a political fatwa. It was to execute this action that led to the US air raid on Tripoli and Benghazi. The US core supporters described the raid as “surgical operation.” Even though Gaddafi escaped, the raid attracted condemnations from Africans, Arab States, and some of the US Western allies.
On the whole, it was the rivalry between the two superpowers that was responsible for the creation the North African autocrats as well as those in the Middle East that are undergoing revolutionary uprising now. It was the superpowers’ rivalry that created military surrogates/balwark states in which Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Zaire, including many states in the Middle East played important parts either for this or that superpower. Because there were no checks and balances in the political framework for governance in these African and Middle Eastern surrogate states, tyranny reigned, corruption and economic mismanagement could not be challenged. Mobutu Sese Seko, a cold war ally of the US provides a good example of regime. It was his authoritarian, agonising 32 years of his autocratic and dismal economic performance that stirred up his people under the leadership of Laurent Kabila to overthrow him. Zaire was an important bulwark state for the West in helping to defeat Communism in Angola. While it’s easy to blame these autocrats for overstaying their welcome in the corridors of power, cold war super powers should not be exonerated from blame.
Patrons of these autocrats closed their eyes to the domestic shortcomings of their allies, and concentrated more on those allies importance in their geopolitical structure as bulwark states against Communism/Capitalism. It is within this context that we should understand how the seed of the prevailing revolution sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East was planted.
CRY FOR CHANGE
In the face of the regional uprising, the U.S has called for a change. The U.S wants Egypt to toe the path of democracy in order to appease its citizens. Speaking on TV talk show, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said, “It’s not a question of who retains power, it’s how we are going to respond to a legitimate needs and grievances expressed by the Egyptian people and chart a new path.” She added, “Clearly, the path that had been followed had not been one that created that democratic opportunity that people in peaceful protests are seeking.” Change is necessary, but in whose image does Mrs Clinton want?
Egypt is an important U.S ally. It receives over a $1b dollar annually from the U.S in terms of its war against Islamic organisations. Besides, Egypt has also a peace treaty and cordial relationship with Israel. A change in Egypt could be frightening to Israel as well as the US particularly, if the envisaged change goes in favours of the conservative forces. Israel has more to fear in Egypt, should the Conservative Islamists hijack the revolution there. They will probably abrogate the peace treaty with Israel and opt for hostile posture.
The same is applicable to other Arab states such as Bahrain, a key U.S ally in whose soil is positioned the US 5th Fleet. Bahrain is a volatile state governed by the minority ruling Sunni Sheiks for over two centuries. But with the wave of change initiated by Tunisia, the majority Shiite in Bahrain is clamouring for a change in leadership. They would want a democratically elected cabinet and the ousting of their long time ruling Prime Minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Can Shiite takeover reverse the US foothold in Bahrain?
The US has re-echoed the mantra of change to the Yemeni leader, Ali Abdullah Sale. Yemeni is another US ally in its war against networks of al Qaida supporters that had mushroomed around that region. If the US and its Western allies think that the Arab nations undergoing revolutionary protests are going to follow the Western path of democracy, they should think again.
The al Qaida number two man, Ayman al-Zawahri has issued warning to Egypt saying, the rulers of that country had for long “deviated from Islam.” He upheld that democracy “can only be non-religious” and replaces God. This statement represents a red signal to people who expect that the windfall from the revolution could bring great dividend. If If we analyse Al-Zawahri’s warning soberly we would reach a conclusion that Western democracy is therefore anathema to Islam. Al-Zawahiri wants theocracy in Egypt.
Western type of democracy and modernisation is likely to generate internal strife in some of the Arab states. Tension would start when such change starts to affect people’s culture, thereby resulting in a clash between modern and conservative structure of governance. The overthrow of Sha of Iran, which generated international ripples on the surface at least, was the action of a revolt spearheaded by popularly backed conservative holy men in protest against his pro-West stance.
The root cause of the Yemeni civil war, which started in 1963, is said to have been the outright discontent of the would-be moderniser with the utter incompetence and resistance to change of the Imamate oligarchy.
The recent protest in Jordan, another US ally also blamed corruption caused by free-market reform. And criticised their government for “pushing a pro-Western reform agenda.”
For those who say hurray, because democracy has, at last been born in the Middle East, it’s premature. The revolution sweeping across the region has no connection with Islamist organisations. But it is likely that after the ousting the iron-fisted autocrats from power, another type of war might ensue between the pro-democracy groups and the conservative religious figures. Even the autocrats, who have the monopoly of coercive apparatus succeed in suppressing the uprisings in some states, the tensions would simmer beneath the political surface waiting for another opportune period to unleash the bottled up anger. The dynamic of the conflict has already been established. The Mogadishu scenario is likely to replicate itself in any of the North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. There is the fear that the uprising might play itself into the hands of the Islamists. Should it happen, the al Queda could be the beneficiary.