On the Oil that Burned the Arab Spring

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An anti-government protester puts up posters of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah with an "X" during a funeral procession in east of Manama 16 September 2011. (Photo: Reuters - Hamad I Mohammed)

By: Tareq Aziza

Published Friday, November 16, 2012

From the moment it started on its journey, beginning in Tunisia and passing through Egypt and other places, it appears as though the train of change is chugging on and there is no stopping it. That is the reality that many regimes – Arab and regional – have come to recognize.

Chief among them is Saudi Arabia, the “official sponsor” of the Arab system. But also Qatar, the economically ascendant oil principality eager to take over Saudi’s regional role after inheriting from the kingdom the honor of hosting the largest US military presence in the Gulf since the 2003 Iraq war.

Even Iran, with its strong regional presence and controversial nuclear program, has realized this. The Iranian regime, however, has a different style of interfering and exercising its influence based on its interests and alliances, but that would require a whole separate discussion, which is not possible in this article.

As such, it is necessary to search for solutions and ways to deal with the crises these regimes may face in their own countries after the uprisings of the “Arab Spring.”

The citizens of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are not better off socially or politically than the people who rose up. It is not like they, of all people, frolic in freedom and enjoy the virtues of democracy. Their populations might be tempted by the unprecedented wave of protests that brought the people back to the realm of political agency from which they had been excluded, a period when citizens were reduced to fodder for the whims of despots and subjects of their tyranny.

All these regimes have claimed to support the popular uprisings, even though their nature, structure, and practices are built on a culture hostile to democracy. Faced with this train whose progress they cannot stop, there is nothing better for these regimes than to sneak onto and ride the train, then seize it and control its direction either directly or through local agents.

With all their wealth and alliances with major powers, these regimes have succeeded to a large degree in controlling the movement for change, setting its tempo and directing its fate. The same thing happened in more than one place by turning peaceful popular movements toward militarization and fueling the fire of sectarian strife by supporting this or that side.

The way the regimes in the countries of the uprisings dealt with their people provided a fertile ground for these outside regimes to interfere. This course of events has frustrated a major opportunity for change which had actually begun as a spontaneous, popular movement in response to the circumstances that made this kind of explosion inevitable.

Work was done to gradually push matters into the hands of some of the political Islamists who have been dreaming of building a power structure in their own image. These movements are in line with the nature of the interfering regimes ideologically and in the political and economic choices that illustrate this ideology.

This is not a reductionist analysis or an exercise in intellectual luxury. It is part of the reality of what has happened, most notably in Tunisia and Egypt. That is, the countries whose people were able to achieve the first task of the revolution through non-violent means: toppling the head of the regime. But the revolutions were then infiltrated and their founders bypassed. There is an ongoing attempt to abort these revolutions by turning them into a power struggle rather than popular movements seeking to build a modern democratic state where freedoms flourish, human rights are respected, and the standard of living is improved.

Instead of the freedom and people’s sovereignty for which the revolutions erupted, the current post-revolution scenes are defined by restrictions on public freedom and monopolies on power. Dominating this scene are Islamists supported by petrodollars who submit to anti-nationalist agendas. They are supervised by self-appointed custodians, guided by the legacy of their “pious ancestors,” that seek to please God...and the United States.

The best proof of this subservience is the declaration made by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers that “they will respect and are completely committed to international treaties,” in reference to the Camp David Accords and Israel’s security.

Al-Nahda, Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood, also rejected a proposal to include in the draft of the new constitution an article stipulating criminalizing normalization with Israel under the pretext that the “Tunisian constitution is going to last longer than Israel,” according to one of its leaders.

All this is in addition to the economic policies that further marginalize the poor – a continuation of the policies of the toppled tyrants. This time, the tyranny is cloaked in religiosity.

It appears that the oil powers and faith peddlers on both sides of the Gulf – Iran and Arab states – along with Turkey’s neo-Ottomans were able to prevent the changes of the “Arab Spring” from taking root thanks to the complicity of the great powers and the deep-rooted, backwards structures in Arab societies.

The spontaneous popular movements did not translate into effective political participation – a necessary condition to produce a modern political consciousness that could pave the way toward a real democratic transition in the Arab world. It is obvious that this kind of transition is not to the liking of those who claim to support it and stand by the people calling for it.

Tareq Aziza is a Syrian writer.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Tourism to Turkey has gotta be better than to Saudi Arabia (where Israelis can't go not yet anwayy).At least you can get a cold beer just about anywhere in Turkey, or a glass of Arak, if your're so inclined.

The writer is clearly an Arab romantic who attempts to shimmer his (can we say colonial?) contempt for Iran by including a shallow comparison with totalitarian dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Countries that rely on ethnocentrist-Wahhabi ideology to rule their herd by claiming for example that only an Arab may rule other Arabs. The writer and has no understanding of Iranian politics or society. Iran is by far better off than any of the Arabic countries, with or without an "Arab Spring", which many have come to regard as a reshuffle of American foreign policy. Iran has incorporated French aspects of electoral process without checks and balances into its multicultural society. It has a higher turnout in elections, which rises every year. A population that is one of the most politically active in the world. A two party system that represents the vast diversity in society, women can drive and attend university en-masse, is an autarkist technological powerhouse, etc. etc. In sum, it is light years away from any ballyhoo comparisons with Saudi Arabia, Qatar or any other satellite Arab regime. Don't expect this to change in the near or distant future.

I would like to differ in opinion with the author when it comes to the Islamist and nationalistic movement of Hezbollah. The only thing you might say they have not been Democratic concerning has been their resistance to Israel, and that is for very good reasons considering what they have been up against in Lebanon, with the treacherous and selfish opposition of March 14th parties, who are not really looking for Democracy for all the people, but power for themselves and benefits for their particular followers, and a deal with Israel. Even Hezbollah has made so many concessions to these parties, at the expense of its own followers, because it does not want the resistance to Israel to be undermined. So if it has been un-Democratic, it is so in an opposite sense, all for the sake of the resistance which they see as the most vital issue facing the people of the region above all else..

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