North Africa, West Asia

In the shadow of an empire

Maged Mandour

The reasons for the involvement of the west in the MENA region are not limited to oil and security. These are the arguments used by both local autocrats and western powers to maintain control. The real threat however is a global revolutionary movement.

Maged Mandour
10 March 2015
Pro-Mossadeq demonstration.

Pro-Mossadeq demonstration. Nasser Sadeghi/Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.After more than four years of unrest, revolution, and counter-revolution the Arab World still sits firmly within the confines of its position as a peripheral zone in an international capitalist system led by the United States. 

One of the main goals of breaking the neo-colonial relationship between the west and the Arab World failed miserably. One could argue that the social and political collapse of the Arab World has increased its ruling elites’ dependence on the west, and as such the level of political, social and economic penetration of the west has multiplied.

The US and its allies continue to be involved in military operations in the Arab World, and Arab autocrats from Bahrain to Egypt are receiving a plethora of political and material aid to sustain their rule.

The question that imposes itself is why the west, particularly the United States, pursues this policy in the Arab World?

There are a number of traditional arguments, which range from security to oil. However, they are not all that convincing, and the following alternative hypothesis is offered as one attempt to explain this seemingly irrational behavior.    

The argument of security

There is a popular rationale among commentators that the west is forced to deal with autocrats, because they are the only force capable of stemming the tide of Islamic extremists. Thus, they are considered the lesser of two evils.

This argument, not surprisingly, is the same one used by Arab autocrats to keep their domestic audiences in line. As such, these autocrats are copying the rhetoric of their western allies. However, is this argument valid? A few examples can help highlight the fallacy of this argument.  

In Egypt, after the military coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, the military embarked on a campaign of severe repression against its opponents. This strategy was not only aimed at suppressing the Brotherhood, a spent force politically, it aimed at polarizing the political system in a manner that ensured support for the military among the urban middle classes. 

Radicalization of Brotherhood supporters was essential for the success of this strategy. Thus, creating the dichotomy of “civilized” and “savage”, and the need for a strong man to restore order, coupled with the creation of security threats, was an essential component of the legitimacy of the regime, and one for which it is the only beneficiary. Thus, the logic of the need to support autocrats in order to combat terrorism negates itself.

Based on this, the US and the EU are supporting autocrats in order to fight terrorism that they themselves have created. An exercise in futility to say the least.

In Iraq, this becomes even clearer. As Toby Dodge argues in his book Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism, the United States after the invasion proceeded to create a political order based on an exclusive rather than inclusive elite bargain; igniting resistance among the older disenfranchised Sunni elites.

This, compounded with dismantling the Iraqi army, the low number of combat coalition troops, and the aggressive policy of de-Baathification served to push the country towards a state of collapse, and paved the way for the rise of Sunni extremism that eventually led to the rise of ISIS.

During this, over a decade-long, process of state collapse, insurgency and terrorism, the US and its allies continued to support an openly sectarian regime, which commited acts of sectarian killing and state-sponsored terrorism no less atrocious than the acts of ISIS.

The same circular logic of security and the need to support “unsavory” autocrats in order to fight terrorism was pursued. Another fallacy.

The argument of securing the supply of oil

This is again another fallacy that is not consistent across the board. First, the notion that oil producers would shut off oil supply if friendly relations are not maintained is ludicrous to say the least.

In reality, the west is not dependent on Arab oil producers; it is the other way around. First, the survival of the Gulf monarchies depends on their ability to provide a certain standard of welfare in exchange for political obedience from their citizens.

In essence, the ability of Gulf States to survive as rentier states without democratizing their political systems depends on their ability to sell oil on the international market. Thus, the ability of Gulf States to cut the supply of oil is restricted by this fact. The dependency of the west on Arab oil is restricted by its bargaining power as the major consumer in the world.

In addition, the presence of a large number of American troops in the Gulf, and the ever-growing ambition of Iran in the Gulf, also creates another kind of dependency, namely security dependency.

In other words, the Gulf States are dependent on the US and other Arab allies, namely Egypt, as bulwarks against Iran. This makes Gulf monarchies dependent on the west, not the other way around, and ultimately restricts the ability of the Arab oil producers to reduce the flow of oil to the west.

Finally, the conciliatory outlook where regimes are appeased regardless of their political orientation, owing to the mere fact that they are oil producers is contradictory.

The most potent example is that of Iran. As a major oil producer it has been subjected to western sanctions and pressures with varying severity ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Surely, the US could have reached an accommodation, if the supply of oil was their most important goal. Thus, the rationalization that western support for Arab autocrats is necessary for the protection of the oil supply does not hold up under scrutiny.    

The question that re-poses itself, therefore, is why the west supports Arab autocrats? Why did it not do more to support the protest movements whose goals of freedom and democracy are supposedly deeply embedded in western political thought and culture?

Regime change had finally come to the Arab World, and as Liberal Theory would dictate, if liberal democratic regimes were established it could have led to peace, and the Kantian idea of “Perpetual peace” might finally be realized.

So, why support the autocrats?

The answer to this question comes from another, rather older, historical example namely the Anglo-American sponsored coup in Iran that removed the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadeq, in 1954.

The aim of the coup was not to eliminate the threat of a Soviet takeover, nor was it about securing the flow of oil, it was rather the notion that a national movement should not be allowed to wrest control of the country’s fate from its neo-colonial masters and their domestic allies. Professor Ervand Abrahamian brilliantly illustrated that it was a matter of control, rather than energy security, that drove the coup in his book entitled “The Coup”.

This pattern of political behavior by the US has demonstrated its outright aggression against national, progressive, secular movements in the Arab World and the Middle East, that has been a persistent feature of American policy in the region.

This can be demonstrated in American support for the Egyptian military, the Gulf monarchies, and the Iraqi sectarian regime. The aim of this policy is to suppress those movements which might change the position of the Arab World as a peripheral zone within the American domain, and break western hegemony in the region.

Thus, the aim is to maintain Arab societies in a state of fragility and tranquil stability, for Americans to penetrate at will. This in turn inhibits societal development and stops the rise of a potential competing power that could disrupt American policy in this area of the world.

The support for autocrats, who represent the backwardness of the Arab World and who serve to keep it in a state of weakness, has become of paramount importance to the US and the west. This strategic aim trumps other aims, such as security or fighting terrorism. 

Based on the above, one could argue that the revolutionary movements in the MENA region have two opponents: Arab autocrats and their supporters in the west. This also makes any revolutionary movement in the Arab World naturally international, and more importantly, a movement seeking an international impact. A very difficult path lies ahead, to say the least.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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