Washington's plan to derail the Arab Spring

The U.S. is maneuvering to stem the revolutionary tide around the Middle East.

Washington's plan to contain the Arab Spring

BEHIND BARACK Obama's rhetoric about democracy and freedom, the U.S. government is maneuvering to install a new generation of strongmen to roll back the Arab revolutions and reassert U.S. dominance in the Middle East.

In the latest two examples, the U.S. backed the power grab of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has tried to install ex-regime officials at the head of Syria's newly reorganized opposition. Thus, Washington hopes to divert two massive social uprisings into supportive governments that will remain allied to Western interests rather than reflect the popular will.

The stakes for the U.S. government are high. The invasion and occupation of Iraq--once considered by the arrogant hawks around George W. Bush to be the stepping stone to "regime change" from one end of the Arab world to the other--ultimately succeeded in turning the country into an ally of Iran, the main U.S. nemesis in the Middle East.

Last year's Arab Spring--by overturning long-time dictators in a few countries and forcing governments in others to be more responsive to their populations--threatened to take even more nations out of their close U.S. orbit.

That, in turn, exposed the contradictions of U.S. reliance on Israel to dominate the region. Israel's latest war on the Palestinian territory of Gaza not only failed to crush the Hamas government there, but also propelled the cause of Palestinian liberation to a level of prominence in Arab and Muslim countries unseen in decades.

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THAT'S THE common thread in Washington's seemingly contradictory policies since the revolutionary wave began in Tunisia two years ago. First, the U.S. supported Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali until a mass uprising and general strike forced him out, all in a matter of a month's time. Washington followed the same script in Egypt, sticking with Hosni Mubarak--one of the linchpins of U.S. policy in the Arab world--until the last minute.

In Bahrain--the base of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet--Washington green-lighted savage counterrevolutionary repression against a peaceful pro-democracy movement. In Yemen, the U.S. eased out a despised authoritarian, in the hopes of shoring up a military-dominated government.

Only in Libya--where the U.S. and European powers armed rebels opposed to Muammar el-Qaddafi and carried out a punishing aerial assault under the guise of humanitarian aims--did the U.S. seem to unreservedly back the ouster of the old regime. But as Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn anticipated, the fall of Qaddafi's regime was "primarily won by NATO, and not popular revolution."

Over the two decades before his downfall, Qaddafi had been welcomed back into the good graces of the West on the basis of oil deals, but he was still considered too unreliable and isolated--and therefore expendable. So the Western powers channeled the revolution into a pliable government in which CIA assets and ex-Qaddafi officials played a key role.

The same method is at play in the U.S. policy toward Syria.

Barack Obama has voiced U.S. recognition of Syria's opposition himself, signaling a more interventionist approach. But what's remarkable about the U.S. attitude to the Bashar al-Assad regime is just how long the U.S. has held back from funding and arming the Syrian rebels.

Policymakers in both the U.S. and Israel have been fearful of a popular democratic post-Assad regime on Israel's border. As a result, the promised heavy weapons have failed to reach rebel hands. Instead, NATO member Turkey ensured that the revolutionary forces--grouped under the umbrella Free Syrian Army (FSA)--were limited to AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, even as the Assad regime pounded rebels with air strikes and unleashed murderous paramilitary forces against towns and villages across Syria.

Instead of backing revolutionary forces like the grassroots Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs), the U.S. relied on Saudi Arabia and Qattar to funnel weapons into Syria, along with ultraconservative Islamist fighters. The prominence of these Islamist groups among the FSA has now led to a panic in Washington, where officials fear that the same jihadists who fought the U.S. occupation in Iraq may play a key role in a post-Assad regime.

That's why the U.S. recognition of Syria's new National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces comes with strings attached. In order to get backing in Washington and European capitals, the opposition had to agree to exclude ultraconservative Islamists. That's led to a backlash from revolutionary forces that object to the U.S. choosing which Syrian groups to support.

The opposition will also give a higher profile to former regime elements who, not long ago, were among those ordering the repression of revolutionaries. At the same time, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the previous opposition formation, the Syrian National Council, will remain a key player in the opposition. The U.S. hopes to broker a deal between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and former military figures from the regime to head a post-Assad government--one that can contain the revolutionary self-activity of the LCCs.

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THIS IS part of a broader trend of the U.S. State Department using the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Sunni Islamist groups to reconstitute a pro-U.S. axis in the Middle East, in common alliance against Iran, which is run by rival Shiite Islamist groups. As Hani Shukrallah wrote at the Ahram Online website, Egypt's role in brokering an end to the Israeli war on Gaza led the U.S. to embrace Egyptian President Morsi as the key to "stability"--that is, to U.S. control--even after Morsi's decree last month giving himself unchecked political powers:

It would take the U.S./Egypt-brokered truce in Gaza...to have Western media and pundits drooling over Mr. Morsi and his up-and-coming Muslim Brotherhood-run and -controlled regime. All of a sudden, they discovered that not only was the MB president as compliant as his predecessor on "Israeli security," but that he was proving a much more effective partner in this respect.

Suddenly, the realization hit home: Here was a democratically elected president (albeit narrowly), backed by "authentic" Islamist Muslims, not only in Egypt but throughout the Greater Middle East, able not only to intimidate and pressure Hamas into "reasonableness," as Mubarak's Omar Suleiman was known to do, but to do so in his capacity as Big Brother to the errant Palestinian branch of his movement. A unique and previously unexpected prize of this order was simply too precious to squander, even for the sake of such niceties as basic liberties and human rights.

In return for U.S. support, Morsi gave the Pentagon what it wanted: a proposed constitution that further entrenches the Egyptian military's political and economic power by not only guaranteeing its traditional control over its budget and commercial enterprises, but the power to declare war.

Yet for all the power of U.S. imperialism and its clients who run the Egyptian military, Obama is a long way from getting the "stability" he wants.

The renewed revolutionary ferment in Egypt, provoked first by Morsi's decree and then by a snap referendum on the draft constitution, is taking place at a higher political level and raises more fundamental political questions.

The issue now isn't just the removal of a hated authoritarian, Mubarak, but the very nature of revolution, democracy and social change. Moreover, Egypt's looming economic crisis--and the austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund--will further undermine the Muslim Brotherhood government. Class divisions--and class struggle--will continue to sharpen.

The renewed struggle in Egypt will give a boost to other struggles in the region. Unions in Tunisia have threatened to call a general strike in opposition to the economic policies of the Islamist-dominated government there. The pro-democracy movement in Jordan is challenging another U.S. flunky, King Abdullah, over the removal of fuel subsidies and the lack of democracy in the country. Even in Bahrain, where the arrest, torture and murder of pro-democracy activists is commonplace, the movement remains unbowed.

It's impossible to predict the outcome of the many revolutionary crises in the Middle East. What is certain is that U.S. and its remaining allies will do their utmost to organize the counterrevolution--whether in the form of a crackdown by dictators and monarchs or carried out by newfound friends in organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet it's equally certain that the opposition to the old order will deepen as well. Already, the latest surge of protests have shown that the old slogan of the historic May 1968 general strike in France rings true today: The struggle continues.