West has ugly history of blocking Arab freedom
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the Munich Security Conference Plenary Session on February 5, said the US had always stood for the principle “free people govern themselves best”.
This, she said, is “not simply a matter of idealism, it is a strategic necessity”.
A cursory look at events — past and present — demonstrates the exact opposite to be true.
The rebellion across the Arab world is not just about democracy and economic injustices. It is also a continuation of a centuries-old struggle for national self-determination against domination and plundering by Western powers.
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Early last century, British imperialism took advantage of growing Arab opposition to the declining Ottoman empire, which had sided with Germany in World War I.
In return for Arab support in the war, Britain offered its support for an independent Arab kingdom extending from Syria to Yemen.
At the same time, Britain signed a secret pact with France to carve up the region.
France was given Lebanon and Syria. Britain, which had already established a “protectorate” in Egypt, added Iraq and Transjordan (today Jordan) to the areas it directly or indirectly ran.
With the discovery of oil in the region, the stakes were upped for Western powers to block genuine Arab independence. But by the 1930s, nationalist uprisings weakened imperialism’s grip on the region.
Workers and peasants rose up in British-controlled Palestine in 1936-9, as relations between the European Jews — who were encouraged to move in — and the Arab inhabitants increasingly took the form of coloniser and colonised.
Only brutal repression by the British military crushed the nationalist uprising.
With the rise of anti-colonial struggles across the world and the weakening of European powers during World War II, Arab masses rose up. France lost control of Syria and Lebanon. Jordan gained independence and British troops were forced out of Iraq and Egypt.
The US, aiming to shore up its interests in the region, backed Zionist demands for the creation of Israel as a “Jewish state” in historic Palestine as a weapon against Arab aspirations for independence.
Palestine was partitioned in 1947 and a year later the state of Israel was officially created.
The creation of Israel and its subsequent war against neighbouring Arab countries only stimulated anti-imperialist sentiments.
A growing sentiment in favour of pan-Arab unity against imperialism became intertwined with support for the Palestinian cause.
In 1952, the nationalist Free Officers movement carried out a coup in Egypt. The new government, headed Gamal Abdel Nasser, abolished the pro-British monarchy and sought real independence.
The Nasser government carried out a program of industrialisation and land reform. It also supported the Sudanese struggle for independence from Britain and the Tunisian and Morrocan struggles for independence from France (all achieved in 1956).
Nasser also backed the war of liberation against France started by the National Liberation Front in Algeria in 1954 (which won in 1962).
Imperialist opposition to Nasser escalated with his government’s 1956 nationalisation of the British-French company that owned the Suez Canal, which linked the oil-producing Arab countries in the east with Europe and the US.
In response, Israel invaded Egypt, with British and French support. After Israel was forced to withdraw, Nasser nationalised a further 55 British and French companies.
These events further flamed Arab nationalist sentiments. In 1958, the United Arab States was founded by Egypt, Syria and Yemen — lasting until 1961.
Uprisings and unrest in Iraq led to it pulling out of the Baghdad Pact (a cooperation treaty with nearby nations and Britain) in 1959.
In Lebanon, nationalist revolt threatened to overthrow the government of president Camille Chamoun. US president Dwight Eisenhower responded by sending more than 14,000 troops to “stabilise” the country by brutally putting down the revolt.
Arab regimes were feeling pressured to support the Palestinian cause and boycott Israel, but the Zionist state resorted to brute military force.
On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a surprise invasion of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. It took the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.
US aid to Israel quadrupled after 1967. For the Arab masses, defeat led to growing disillusionment in their leaders.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat responded to the constant threat of Israeli attacks by seeking US support to negotiate with Israel over the return of the Sinai Peninsula.
Sadat, who faced pressure from workers and peasants seeking to defend social gains made under Nasser, responded to an economic crisis by pleading for US economic and military aid.
In return, the US demanded Egypt recognise Israel and oppose Palestinian resistance.
Faced with Israel’s refusal to talk, Egypt and Syria fought Israel in 1973 to regain the territory occupied since 1967.
They failed largely because of a huge US arms shipment to Israel. However, the conflict led Israel to agree to negotiate.
The Sadat government broke a 30-year Arab boycott of public diplomatic dealings with Israel in 1977 and signed a treaty with Israel in 1979.
In 1979, the US-backed Iranian regime of the Shah was overthrown. Tens of millions of Iranians took to the streets to bring the regime down. The new government expelled 45,000 US personnel from the country and broke ties with Israel.
The Shah had been in power since 1953, when a CIA-organised coup brought down the democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh government after it nationalised Iran’s oil reserves.
Islamic fundamentalist forces captured the leadership of the revolution and derailed it. But the US could not tolerate a government that rested on the gains of the Iranian revolution.
To undermine Iran, the US backed the war launched by its then friend, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, in 1980.
With the capitulation of other Arab regimes, imperialism and the weakening of nationalist parties, Islamist groups grew stronger in several countries.
In many cases, they received US and Israeli support and funding as a counterweight to left-wing or secular nationalist movements (viewed as a greater threat to US interests).
The 30-year-long US support for Mubarak is part of this long battle against the democratic aspirations of the Arab people.
US support for the Mubarak regime continued to the very end — US officials responded to the popular revolution with calls for “negotiations” between opposition groups and the hated dictatorship. The US refused to cancel its $1.3 billion-a-year military aid to the regime.
WikiLeaks released a December 2008 US embassy cable from Cairo that reveals the US saw its relation with Egypt as key to its control in the region. Having a friendly regime provided “critical Suez Canal and overflight access for US military operations” and ensured the Egypt-Israel treaty was maintained.
“We have come to take the US-Egyptian security partnership for granted, but we should not underestimate its value to us and the region … We would not like to contemplate complications for US regional interests should the US-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.”
Calls from the US and other Western government officials for an “orderly transition” in Egypt simply mean an attempt to secure a new regime as friendly to Western and Israeli interests as possible.
In the name of “democracy”, the US and its allies invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and these two nations destroyed — with the outcome of corrupt, undemocratic US-installed regimes being imposed on the people.
Over the past three weeks, the Egyptian people have increasingly become conscious of their own power to shape the course of history. They have shown it is ordinary people — not hypocritical Western powers — that are the force capable of winning democratic change.