“Thought only sees in reality what a specific formation shows it.” Mahdi ‘Amil, 1936-1987.
Popular rebellions reflect the urges of a people, but they are themselves not always capable of victory. If the structure of a social order in a particular formation is weakened by war or by economic turmoil, then the popular rebellions might be able to move history forward. Even here, the record shows that unless there is an organized force that is ready to seize the day – historical motion can falter. Older social classes that have a monopoly over violence hastily enter the fray to their advantage. Human history is littered with failed uprisings. They are the norm. Success is the exception. But neither failure nor success holds back the frequency of revolts. These are in the nature of human desire: the march toward freedom.
Freedom is an elusive idea. Ravages of history have produced institutions that favor the elite, who are resilient in the ways of metamorphosis. During anti-feudal movements, petty royalty threw off their regal garb, donned the suits of the bourgeoisie and took their places at the front of the new order. The great Arab nationalist revolutions of the 20th century – from Egypt to Libya – rid the region of monarchs, but failed to deepen the roots of popular democracy. They roused the people against the monarchs, but often asked them to stand behind the military. Green uniforms stood in as sentinels of revolution. The actual revolutionaries – labor organizers, communists – went to prison. The colonels and captains seized their rhetoric.
In one redoubt of the region – the Arabian Island (al-jazira al-arabiyya) – monarchy fashioned itself as an ally of the Gunboats of the West. It had no roots in the desert. It was a purely modern invention – 1820 for the al-Khalifa of Bahrain and 1932 for the al-Sauds of Arabia. The West decided – early – that the defense of the Arab monarchs was tantamount to self-preservation. Much of this had to do with oil. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 merely formalised what had been common policy till then. It was the nail in the coffin of freedom for the Arab lands. The West, with its superior firepower, backed the Arab monarchies, flush with petro-dollars, against the will of the Arab people from Morocco to Iraq. The founding of the World Muslim League in 1962 – with complete US support – suggested to the Arab lands that republicanism, nationalism and socialism were anathema – that the hand on the tiller of Arab history had to be Saudi. This sets in concrete the social formation of the Arab lands.
Before the Arab Spring came Nasserism, the great idea that the Arabs should be free of Western imperialism and Wahabbi social suffocation. That had to be trounced. The West showed its hand with its alliance with the Saudis, which it continues to consider “moderate” into the present day. Antipathy to republican nationalism defined Western policy from the 1950s onwards. Till the 1980s, the language of the West and the Saudis was anti-Communist; from the 1980s, the language would be – ironically – pro-democracy. The West (and the Saudis) would attack the old Arab nationalist regimes for being anti-democratic. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the test case in the 1990s, but that view of the anti-democratic nationalist regime would soon move to Syria and Libya (but not Egypt, now a US ally, nor of course the Gulf monarchies). Nothing that disturbed the order maintained by the pillars of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West could be allowed to flourish. Anti-Communism and Pro-Democracy were simply phrases that indicated the status quo.
After Nasserism, the next threat to the Saudi-Western order came from the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The World Muslim League and its ancillary groups had made the argument that republican nationalism and socialism were anti-Islamic. The Iranian Revolution now arrived in the region and proposed the existence of an Islamic republic (that these had a longer history, namely in Pakistan and Bangladesh, had no bearing on the debate in West Asia). Iran directly threatened the ideological claims made by the Gulf Arab monarchies. It was this challenge that had to be routed – first by Iraq’s failed invasion and long war (1980-88). Iran held fast against both the Saudi-backed attempts and by the US attempts at destabilization.
Bush – the Persian Candidate
When US President George W. Bush prosecuted his war against Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-03, he delivered a major geopolitical victory to Iran. Two of Iran’s historic adversaries – Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and the Taliban – fell by the wayside as Iran’s allies – the Iraqi Dawa Party and the forces of Ismail Khan of Herat – took center-stage. America fought the war; Iran won it. Iran stretched its influence to the Mediterranean Sea and to the Hindu Kush. It rattled the doors of the Saudi palaces and of the White House.
Attempts to hem in Iran came immediately. The US Congress passed the 2005 Syria Accountability Act that was premised on breaking Iran’s ties to Damascus and through there to Beirut. Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006 was the next feint – this time targeting Hezbollah, who have close ties to Iran. The nuclear sanctions regime that began in 2006 pushed hard against Iran’s geopolitical allies and its own economy. Israel’s threats against Iran and the assassination of Iranian scientists as well as the Western strike on Iran’s computer system (Stuxnet worm) provided the next blow. None of these succeeded. By the turn of the decade, it had become clear that Iran was not going to bow easily to Western pressure and return to its isolation. It had become a regional power, and that was that.
The Arab Spring threatened to allow Iran a wider role than it had previously achieved. The post-Mubarak regime in Egypt allowed Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal, and Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi visited Tehran – both firsts since 1979. The dynamic of the Arab Spring – fought over between the regional powers (Turkey, Iran and the Gulf monarchies) – seemed in doubt. That is precisely when Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted themselves against the Muslim Brotherhood axis (Qatar and Turkey) as well as Iran. Morsi’s dance with Tehran showed that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a serious bulwark against Iran. The Saudis – and their GCC partners – went alone.
Breathing fire, the Saudi proxies caused havoc in Syria and Libya, as Saudi money bankrolled the coup by General Sisi in Egypt and opened a new war against Yemen. Qatar – tail between its legs – retreated from its position of adversary, as Turkey spiraled out of control. The West backed the Saudis fully, although it was wary of the Saudi initiative in Syria. Disagreement over Syria did not prevent the Saudis from prosecuting their own game there – largely through their proxy Jaish al-Islam. It was not enough to push back against Iran itself – make this a geopolitical struggle. The Saudi temperament is geared toward bringing in religion to the table. Anti-Iran morphed rapidly into anti-Shia rhetoric and practice. It is how Saudi proxies have operated in Syria and in Iraq and why Saudi Arabia began its endless war in Yemen. It is why the Saudi regime executed the Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. These are provocations along sectarian lines. They are what the Saudis know.
The Road Goes Through Riyadh
The Arab Spring was defeated neither in the byways of Tahrir Square nor in the souk of Aleppo. It was defeated roundly in the palaces of Riyadh. From there came the petro-dollars to scuttle the ambitions of the people. Tunisia was saved because it has a strong trade union – this is what has thus far held off the interventions of the Saudis. Otherwise the Saudis have laid waste across the Arab world. What began as great hope has now ended with disappointment.
Nothing can come for the Arab world as long as the long arm of Saudi Arabia and its allies rest firmly on the aspirations of the Arab people. The tension with Iran has only closed the space for any alternative to emerge. What is necessary in the short term – because the expectations of a new upsurge in the short-run are minimal – is to fight for a drawdown of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An Arab Spring worth its salt will have to break through the pillars of stability that benefit the West and the Gulf monarchies at the expense of the vast mass of the people. Embers of this remain burning – but only here and there.
Vijay Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College. His next book is The Lotus and the Settler: India-Palestine-Israel.