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Which tyrant will fall next?

Patrick Cockburn, Independent
In three of the Arab countries east of Egypt – Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – protesters have challenged their governments over the past year but failed to overthrow them. The reasons for those failures are very different though they have important points in common. In each of these states protesters were frustrated because a significant part of the population had a lot to lose if the ruling elite were reformed or overthrown.

In Syria and Bahrain religious identity helps explain loyalty to the powers-that-be. Protesters in Bahrain might insist that their programme was secular and democratic, but everybody knew that a fair poll would affect revolutionary change by putting the majority Shia in power instead of the minority Sunni. In Syria, similarly, democracy means that the Sunni, three quarters of the population, would effectively replace the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, as rulers of the state.

This does not mean that the demonstrators in both countries had a secret sectarian agenda. It was simply that political divisions already ran along sectarian lines.

… The Sunni-Shia rivalry goes some way to explaining why the Arab Spring won successes in North Africa that it has not achieved east of Egypt. Each side has been led by religiously inspired states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have struggled for supremacy in the region for 30 years. Embattled regimes and their insurgent enemies automatically gain allies.
(29 December 2011)

2011 Revolutions and the End of Republican Monarchy

Juan Cole website
Egyptian reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim observed in the late 1990s and 2000 that the Arab world was beginning to be characterized by a bizarre gryphon-like form of government, the republican monarchy. In a republic, power is supposed to be vested in the people, who are sovereign, and who can change out their leaders through elections. In a monarchy, power is vested in a hereditary monarchy.

Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad made a coup in Syria in 1970. By the late 1990s, as his health failed, he groomed his son Bashar as his successor. Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father. Initially he was thought likely to make significant reforms. But he was constrained by the powerful Jama’at al-Assad or al-Assad clan to retain the regime’s closed and authoritarian ways.

… The republican monarchy was not a quirk. It reflected the realities of political economy. From the 1990s, the Arab states were beginning to adopt Neoliberal (laissez-faire, anti-regulatory) policies after a long period of socialism. Privatizing public economic resources created enormous opportunities for graft, favoritism and nepotism. The government knew where the opportunities were for investment before the public, and state officials could tip their relatives and cronies.

There is a sense in which the great Arab upheavals of 2011 were in the first instance revolts against republican monarchy. The Arab youth who came in the streets viewed the nepotistic elites as predatory, and as pursuing policies that lined their own pockets at the expense of fostering opportunities for their publics.

When people ask if the Arab Spring has really changed or accomplished anything, this reality should be remembered. Since a whole future, in which the sons of the dictators would come to power, has now been erased from the arena of possibility, it will be easy to forget that it had ever been in the cards.

We should also consider that the very prospect of republican dynasties was one of the motivators for the youthful crowds who made the revolutions. However hopeless the political, cultural and economic scene might have been, if there had been hope of eventual change than perhaps people would have stayed home and not risked their lives to make a revolution. The very likelihood that the dynasty would just go on, and that its policies would change little, produced the anger and despair that fueled popular discontent.
(27 December 2011)

US military retains global reach, but role as world leader is gradually ending

Editorial, Guardian/UK
United States as a Global Power: New World Disorder

The time has long since past when it became fashionable to talk about a new world order. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity to fashion one. But instead of using that opportunity to create a new security architecture in Europe, Nato expanded eastwards as the military anchor for democracy promotion. Not content to have seen off one global military competitor in the Soviet Union, the western military industrial complex and the think-tanks they funded scurried around for a worthy replacement. When 11 September happened, they thought they were in business again. For a brief moment, al-Qaida seemed to fulfil some of the characteristics of communism: it could pop up anywhere in the world; it was an existential enemy, driven ideologically and uncontainable through negotiation; and it was potentially voluminous. Neither the doctrines of the pre-emptive strike, nor attacking a foreign country abroad to ensure security at home, were new. Swap the domino theory of the Vietnam era for the crescent of crisis of the Bush and Obama eras, and you had the same formula for a foe that hopscotched across the globe.

But here’s the curious thing. Al-Qaida failed, not by being bombed out of the tribal areas of Pakistan or by losing its video-hugging leader. It failed as an ideological alternative, in its own terms and for its own people. It failed in Egypt, the country that mattered most to its chief thinker, the Egyptian-born doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri. When the opportunity arose for millions of Muslims to shed their brutal Arab yoke (this was supposed to be the fourth phase in the construction of the Caliphate, to be accompanied by physical attacks against oil suppliers and cyber ones on the US economy), nothing of the sort happened. Islam is indeed winning the day, but it is political rather than military. It seeks alliances with the apostate and says it is committed to democratic partnership and the rule of law.

Al-Qaida’s failure was all the more significant because the western response, the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, also failed.
(29 December 2011)

The United States versus Everybody

Immanuel Wallerstein, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton Univeristy
Once upon a time, the United States had many friends, or at least relatively obedient followers. These days, it seems to have nothing but adversaries, of all political colorations. What is more, it seems not to be doing too well in its adversarial encounters.

Take what has been happening in November of 2011 and the first half of December. It has had confrontations with China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Germany, and Latin America. One can’t say that it has gotten the better part of any of these controversies.

The world interpreted the presence and announcements of Pres. Obama in Australia to be an open challenge to China. He told the Australian Parliament that the United States was determined “to allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region.” To this end, the United States is deploying 250 Marines to an Australian air base in Darwin (and possibly raising the number in the future to 2500).

This is only one of a number of moves of similar military display in the region. So, as the United States pulls out (or is being forced out) of the Middle East – for both political and financial reasons – it flexes its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region. Is this really believable, given both the U.S. public’s growing reluctance to be involved externally and its urgent demands to reduce expenditures, even in the military? So far, China’s “response” has been virtually a non-response, as if to say that time is on China’s side, even for its relations with the United States, or perhaps especially for its relations with the United States.
(15 December 2011)

The Decline Of America

Noam Chomsky, ZNet
Despite America’s decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power

In the 2011 summer issue of the journal of the American Academy of Political Science, we read that it is “a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal — is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay.” It is indeed a common theme, widely believed, and with some reason.

But an appraisal of US foreign policy and influence abroad and the strength of its domestic economy and political institutions at home suggests that a number of qualifications are in order.

To begin with, the decline has in fact been proceeding since the high point of US power shortly after World War II, and the remarkable rhetoric of the several years of triumphalism in the 1990s was mostly self-delusion. Furthermore, the commonly drawn corollary — that power will shift to China and India — is highly dubious. They are poor countries with severe internal problems. The world is surely becoming more diverse, but despite America’s decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.
(23 December 2011)