Palestine and the Arab counterrevolution

July 28, 2014

In an article published in Red Flag, Australian socialist Corey Oakley puts Israel's war on Gaza in the context of the counterrevolution against the Arab revolutions of 2011.

AS ALL the hideous machinery of industrial-scale death rains down on Gaza, ripping apart bodies, burying people under piles of rubble and even targeting ambulances as they rush to save the injured, it is difficult to do anything but rage at the crimes of the Israeli state.

But as the endless stream of horrific images from Gaza exposes the moral bankruptcy of Israel and its Western backers, it is important to understand that this crime against humanity is also the work of the vast counterrevolution that is sweeping the Arab world.

The Centers of Arab Reaction

The twin centers of this counterrevolution are the regimes in Cairo and Riyadh. Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi King Abdullah are determined to destroy every remnant of the Arab revolution that erupted in 2011.

In Egypt, Sisi has cynically used the deep and widespread hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood to stamp the authority of the military establishment on the country.

Thousands have been imprisoned in Sisi's "war on terrorism," which has expanded beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to include anyone who dares to question government policy, let alone fight to revive the revolutionary movement. The reassertion of control by the old regime, with only a few figureheads removed, has been aided by billions of dollars in Saudi money.

Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square carry Palestinian flags in a show of solidarity
Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square in May 2011 carry Palestinian flags in a show of solidarity

Now, as Israel's war on Gaza escalates, the attention of Sisi has turned to Hamas, which he considers nothing but an extension of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The pre-revolutionary Egyptian regime was, since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, a close ally of Israel--something that was always a source of anger in Egypt. But Sisi's Palestinian policy today is Mubarak on steroids. Sisi is aligned with the extreme right wing in Israel, which is calling for an all-out war in Gaza--up to and including a full-scale Israeli reoccupation of the Strip.

The cynical Egyptian "ceasefire" proposal, which was announced without even back-channel communication with Hamas, was a demand for absolute surrender, and went beyond even the most cravenly pro-Israel Egyptian proposals in wars past. Instead of being a ceasefire proposal, the Egyptian "plan" amounted to a well-orchestrated move to give Israel political cover for its ground invasion of Gaza, which proceeded on schedule as soon as Hamas inevitably rejected it.

Sisi is backed to the hilt by the pliant Egyptian media. Azza Sami, a writer for government daily Al-Ahram, said on Twitter: "Thank you Netanyahu, and God give us more men like you to destroy Hamas!" Tawfik Okasha, presenter on the Al-Faraeen TV channel, said: "Gazans are not men. If they were men they would revolt against Hamas."

Sisi's most important ally in restoring military rule and crushing the Muslim Brotherhood is the Saudi monarchy. Two hours after Sisi took power last year, he received a congratulatory message from the Saudi King in which Abdullah noted: "It is time to uproot this kind of strange chaos, otherwise any state or nation who is unable to rein in outlaws would eventually lose its dignity and honor."

In a clear warning to other states, he said, "I call on all brothers and friends to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Egypt in any form as tampering the affairs of this country is as a violation of Islam and Arabism and at the same time considered an infringement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Over the past 12 months, the Saudis have gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate the Brotherhood from potential sources of Arab aid. Qatar, the pro-U.S. but also Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Gulf state, has been put under incredible pressure to end its support for the Brotherhood. It has been threatened with punitive action not just from the Saudis, but other neighbors like the United Arab Emirates, which is so hostile to Hamas that it allegedly offered to help fund the Israeli assault on Gaza.

It is unclear how the jostling for position between various powers--including the U.S., Egypt, Qatar and Turkey--to broker a ceasefire will work out. While Qatar and Turkey are clearly inclined to propose an agreement more favorable to the Palestinians than that advanced by Egypt, there is incredible pressure to accept the fundamentals of the Egyptian position.

Either way, it is a remarkable situation in which Egypt, only three years after a revolution in which sympathy for the Palestinian cause played an important part, can have a more pro-Zionist position than both the U.S. and Qatar (which hosts the U.S. Central Command's Forward Headquarters in its territory).

The Saudi/Egyptian push to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is about much more than just hostility to these particular organizations. Sisi's support for an all-out Israeli war on Hamas reflects his hostility to any and all Palestinian resistance.

For the Egyptian military, containing the Palestinians was always a key aspect of its strategy for preventing the transformation of the Egyptian uprising into a genuinely pan-Arab struggle that could tear down the corrupt monarchs and dictatorships and bring democracy and social justice to the region.

While Sisi's grip on power in Egypt is superficially strong, the widespread Palestinian protests across the West Bank and inside Israel, if they did transform into a new Intifada, could have an enormously destabilizing impact in Egypt and across the region.

Creating the Islamist Enemy

The most effective strategy employed by the Arab counterrevolution so far has been its effort to reframe the struggle between dictatorships and mass popular struggle into a battle between authoritarian regimes (secular or not) and Islamist extremism.

The first and most dramatic practitioner of this method was Bashar al-Assad in Syria. From day one, he denounced the Syrian revolutionaries as reactionary Sunni-Islamist terrorists, and has gone to great lengths to turn his accusation into reality. Until last month, Assad's forces had fired hardly a single shot against the al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS (now simply the Islamic State). And why would he? While Assad's forces butchered revolutionaries from the ground and air on one side, ISIS attacked them from the other.

The Egyptian military adopted the same strategy, though with a slightly rearranged deck of cards. It rode back into power last year on the wave of deep and justified anger at Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government's betrayal of the revolution. The army claimed that it had returned to save the revolution from Islamo-fascism. In reality, it came to bury it.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded to protests last year with a renewed campaign of bombings and attacks on rebellious Sunni areas like Falluja, the birthplace of resistance to U.S. occupation. His response to ISIS military victories has not been to try and reconcile Sunni and Shia leaders, but to mobilize sectarian Shia forces, plus those of Iran, the U.S. and others to crush the Sunni population in the name of "fighting terrorism."

The utilization of sectarianism and campaigns against Islamist extremism, and the militarization of conflict across the region, have all had a devastating impact. What began as a mass popular struggle for democratic rights and social justice, which brought people together across sectarian, ethnic and religious lines, has been significantly pushed back.

Yet the strategy is fraught with contradictions. The counterrevolutionary push across the region has created intense instability.

For example, Saudi Arabia initially facilitated extensive funding (mostly through private channels) to elements of the rebellion in Syria. The monarchy allowed this partly because of its hostile relationship with the Iranian-aligned Assad regime, but also to try and prevent the revolutionary forces from taking on too secular and democratic a character. In Iraq, it has channeled funds to Sunni groups opposed to Maliki, which it sees as a way to stymie Iran.

But while the Saudis were happy to see the conflicts in Syria and Iraq take on an increasingly militarized and sectarian character, this also helped create the conditions for the rise of the viciously anti-Saudi ISIS, which since its takeover of much of Northern Iraq is now consolidating its position in Syria and poses a serious medium-term threat to both Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Fahad Nazer, a former analyst at the Saudi Embassy in the U.S., argues: "More than any of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia has the most to lose from the conflict in Iraq spiraling out of control."

The Anti-Imperialists Who Aren't

The jihadist groups, and in particular the ultra-reactionary ISIS, claim that they are friends of the Palestinians. They are anything but.

It is not just that they pose no military threat to Israel. Indeed, ISIS has announced on various occasions that it is more interested in securing control over the population (including Sunni Arabs) and carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing than in coming to the aid of the Palestinians. More fundamentally, its ultra-sectarian and puritanical version of Islam serves only to divide the mass of the Arab population, and obscure the real divide between workers, peasants and the poor, and the parasitical minority at the top.

No better is the so-called "secular" and "anti-imperialist" Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Assad trades off his supposed pro-Palestinian stance. But he, like his father before him, serves as a loyal border guard for Israel. It may be that in this current upheaval, Assad (or ISIS) makes some token gesture in support of the Palestinians. If he does, it will be pure propaganda.

It is no coincidence that the Israelis greeted with fear, not favor, the revolution's threat to Assad's rule. There are, of course, a few naïve people in Israel (as there are on the left) who take Assad's occasional anti-Zionist statements as good coin. But such people do not get to dictate foreign policy. The Israeli establishment overwhelmingly is of the view that the defeat of Assad would be bad for the Zionist state.

Impact on the Palestinian Resistance

The bloody, militarized, multi-faceted conflicts that are raging across the Arab world and suffocating the popular revolutionary movements, have added to the difficulties facing the Palestinians. While impressive numbers demonstrate in Europe and elsewhere, there has been little in the way of mass protests in Arab capitals.

The two most important resistance movements against Israel--Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza--have been severely impacted by the fallout from the Arab uprisings.

Hezbollah has covered itself in shame and abdicated any right to Arab leadership by joining in Bashar al-Assad's butchering of the Syrian revolution. Hezbollah figures now admit that, even in the event of the Gaza war expanding into Lebanon, their forces have been severely impacted by the amount of effort they have put in to helping prop up the Assad dictatorship.

While any Hezbollah engagement with Israel would be welcomed by ordinary Palestinians, its legitimacy to speak for the Arab masses is unlikely to ever recover.

Hamas, to its great credit, broke with Assad and refused to back his war on the Syrian people. But the Arab revolution exposed the critical weakness of groups like Hamas, which rely so heavily on the support from one or other despotic regime.

After its partial break with Syria and its Iranian backers (its fighters still have access to some Iranian and even Syrian weaponry--more than the Israelis suspected, it now seems), Hamas leaned heavily on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But after the fall of Morsi, Hamas found itself with few friends among Arab governments--a situation that was exacerbated by intense Saudi pressure on anyone inclined to give it support.

This is what pushed Hamas to accept a "unity government" with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas could no longer afford to pay its public servants, and so was prepared to agree to a "unity" that conceded almost everything of substance to Abbas.

This dire situation, added to by Israel's undermining of the unity government, is the context in which Israel gained the confidence to launch its latest offensive.

A Missed Opportunity

It didn't have to be so. The 2011 revolution--which began in Tunisia and then spread through Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Jordan and beyond--represented the single greatest chance to break out of the paralyzing impasse into which the Palestinian struggle had sunk.

The long-held slogan of the left--that the road to the liberation of Jerusalem runs through the Arab capitals--seemed to be brought to life. As millions rose against dictatorship, they flew not just their own flags, but that of the Palestinians as well.

I was in Cairo in May 2011, shortly after the overthrow of Mubarak. The first demonstration I saw in Tahrir Square was 50,000 strong. It was a sea of Palestinian flags in solidarity with the thousands of young people battling Israeli forces in the West Bank and the Golan Heights on the anniversary of the Nakba. "To Jerusalem we will come; millions of martyrs for Palestine!" they shouted.

The next night, I travelled across the Nile from Tahrir to join thousands of young people who had besieged the Israeli embassy in Giza. At a later demonstration, the embassy was overrun entirely. This time, the army defended it, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at fearless demonstrators until the early hours of the morning.

A number were killed, and hundreds wounded or arrested. It was a confirmation of what the left then knew, and is now being proved in spades by Sisi: the alliance between the Egyptian military leadership and Israel runs deep.

But it was not just the military and its liberal backers who denounced the protests. So, too, did the Muslim Brotherhood, which argued that the Egyptian revolution had to settle its own problems before dealing with "foreign policy." Worse, the Brotherhood, in close cooperation with Hamas, collaborated with the military to prevent hundreds of Egyptians traveling to the Rafah Crossing to deliver aid to Gaza and demand the border be opened.

Hamas in Gaza, like Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, was determined to stop the Palestinians joining the Arab uprising. Even Hamas, which was elected in 2006 because it refused to embrace the quisling politics of Fatah, feared mass upheaval from below, and saw it as a challenge to both its own increasingly authoritarian rule over Gaza, and the network of alliances it had built up with neighboring states.

Hamas may have partially broken with Syria in protest at Assad's repression, but it did not break with the logic that has plagued the Palestinian resistance for generations: support for--or at least "non-interference" in--the existing Arab regimes.

None of this is to take anything away from the heroism of the Palestinian resistance that is fighting and dying under the flag of Hamas in Gaza today. Whatever criticism there is to be made of Hamas, its militants resisting the savage Israeli assault on Gaza should have the solidarity of every supporter of a liberated Palestine.

A New, Deeper Arab Revolution

The slaughter in Gaza brings into sharp relief the painful contradictions of these last few years.

On the one hand, the Arab revolution transformed the Arab world, and raised the hopes of millions that a new Middle East was possible. On the other, the old regimes for the most part are still in place, bloody new conflicts divide those who once joined hands, and Israel, once again, is acting with murderous impunity against the Palestinians while the Arab world looks on.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn.

One is that a Middle East free of class division, oppression, imperialism, Zionism and sectarianism is impossible. That is the conclusion that the Saudi and Egyptian and Syrian rulers, and ISIS as well, want us to draw. There is no hope, so pick one of us--it's the best you are going to get.

The second possible conclusion is that the Arab revolution has not succeeded because it has not gone far enough.

It was not enough to bring down individual dictators--the whole system of class rule that they expressed had to be brought down. It was not enough to take to the streets or take to arms--the social power of the masses, without whose weight the wheels that grind out the profits of the Arab billionaires would not turn, needed to be decisively brought to bear.

It was not enough to rally against imperialist intrigue--the revolution needed to drive the imperialists and their myriad agents from every corner of Arab society. It was not enough to disorganize the old order--it was necessary to create the organizations which could be the vehicle for the new. It was not enough to declare "down with the old ideologies"--the revolution had to articulate its own vision of a new world, a new ideology that put meat on the bones of its great slogans: "democracy, freedom, social justice."

There is, of course, no easy answer as to how these simple notions can be given meaning in flesh and blood. But against despair, they are a start.

And whatever is to come, there are two things that are certain. One, the crisis of poverty and inequality and injustice that brought forth the Arab revolution has not been resolved and will not go away.

Two, however terrible the defeats suffered by revolutionaries across the Middle East these past years, the flame of resistance has not been extinguished. There is no greater example of that in this hour than the Palestinians, whose resistance from the streets of Gaza to the West Bank and the Arab towns of Israel is reviving belief in the Intifada.

The historic bearers of Arab suffering, but also the historic spark of Arab resistance, were passed over during the Arab spring. Perhaps now, as reaction storms across the Arab world, the Palestinians can rise from the rubble and the devastation of Shujaia to give the Arab revolution new life.

First published in Red Flag.

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