Middle East and North Africa – round two approaches

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by David Malone

The developments in the ongoing unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa are, in my opinion, building up pressure for another eruption and this one will meet greater opposition.

In Egypt massive protests have again occupied Tahrir Square. Only this time there is no Mubarak to sacrifice. Not only has there not really been the radical move from military dictatorship to democracy that the protesters fought for, but the massive inflation in food prices have increased rather than decreased.  Inflation in Egypt rose from 10.7% annual rate to 11.5%. But this figure, because it includes items that have lost value due to the unrest, disguises the real rate of inflation. The real pain for ordinary people is what they have to pay to feed themselves. Food inflation in Egypt is 20.5% and rose in the last month by 3.3%.

After Mubarak’s fall both the military and the security forces were left virtually unchanged and in power. The figurehead was removed, not the machinery which underpinned his rule.  If the protesters start to confront that machinery directly I think we will see a propaganda operation swing into place which will start to claim that the protests are no longer peaceful democratic protests but claim that they are being highjacked by or infiltrated. The military has already started to say the protests are being used by elements who supported the old regime.  This is a clear attempt to try to sap its popular strength by driving a wedge between protesters and the wider public.  When this does not work, as I don’t think it will, the propaganda will start to say the protests are being used by radical elements from Gaza and Palestine. The propaganda will also try to paint the unrest as being a cover for radical Islamic groups.  Such a propaganda move will be more for Western public opinion than for anyone else.

If this is what happens then things will turn ugly and I fear we will see Israel and Iran getting drawn in with the US and Europe making noises about ‘ensuring order’ etc.

In Lybia there is a festering stalemate as behind the scenes negotiating tries to settle who gets what. The US keeps claiming it does not want to lead. What it means is it does not want to be seen to lead.  But Lybia sits on too much Sweet Crude and gas for me to believe the US are truly disinterested.  Plus, I find it hard to believe that the UK, France and the US do not already have special forces on the ground.

The kind of precision bombing NATO is after is very difficult unless targets are spotted and ‘painted’ from the ground. And that requires special forces with the right equipment in place.

Then there is the real flashpoint, Syria. Unrest in Syria is growing and with it the increasingly brutal and dangerous escalation in government attempts to crush it.  People are now being killed in Syria.  The ‘problem’ is that any uprising in Syria is always going to be mixed up with western and Israeli fears over any expansion of the power and influence of Hamas, Hezbollah and, via them, Iran.  Syria has links to Iran.  The dictatorship in Syria has been softly supported by the west and Israel because it is largely seen as a restraining and powerful force in the Middle East.  What would happen to Israel’s ‘secret’ agreement with Syria over Golan and water rights would be a major worry in any uprising.

Unrest in Qatar, Bahrain, and particularly in Yemen has NOT gone away nor been addressed in any lasting or meaningful way. It has slipped from our news agenda, but not gone away.

The first round of uprisings were allowed to be what they in fact were, largely peaceful protests in favour of democracy and in the hopes of a fairer distribution of wealth. As pressures build again and spreads, I worry that the local militaries and the global players watching from the wings will start to feel enough is enough and radical Islam will be the cover for supporting oppression once again.

Just a quick additional note – which I will pick up again. There seems to be a pervasive narrative which says democracy (by which we really mean a market-based capitalist system in which some bits of democracy are allowed) has struggled along against a backdrop of ignorance and backwardness and is now being attacked by the rise of radical Islam.  I think this narrative is absolutely wrong.  What I suggest as an alternative is that for 50 years or so the western agenda of capitalist free markets with its thin sugar coating of democracy-lite has failed utterly to deliver on its promises.  The reality of the western system has been endemic state corruption, wealth expropriation, indebtedness and the corrupt quasi-military rule of a western supported elite.

The rise of Islam has not been because most people have become hugely funadamentalist, but because Islamic organisations on the ground, like Hamas, deliver. Islam is not first and foremost ‘radicalising’ people, it is feeding and clothing them. Some of them it radicalises thereafter. It has their attention because it helped them. You want clean water in a poor area, you want relief from police corruption – the radical islamic groups deliver. In exactly the way the mafia in the US would offer people ‘protection’ from corrupt police forces.

I suggest that the story is not of radical Islam seizing control, but of the utter failure of the western model creating a vacuum into which Isam is being drawn.  The hearts and minds of the people are not being won by Islam but lost by the west. If any western powers simply made it a point of foreign policy to support a truly law abiding government which shared its wealth with its people, Islam would have no hold there. But our financial system does not want to share.

Islam is not winning the argument. We are losing it. There is a difference.