Fresh Western hypocrisy on Arab Spring

Pro-democracy protesters in Egypt.

British Conservative PM David Cameron told a May 26 London press conference with US President Barack Obama that the world's biggest superpowers support the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

He said the main task of the May 26-27 G8 meeting in Deauville, France the following day was promoting “democracy, freedom and prosperity” in the Middle East.

Obama also expressed “solidarity” with the uprisings. “It will be years before these revolutions reach their conclusion, and there will be difficult days along the way”, he said. “Power rarely gives up without a fight.”

He had earlier used his May 19 speech on the Middle East at the State Department in Washington to make similar declarations of his administration's support for the Arab revolutions. He implied the overthrow of dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt took place with US encouragement.

Obama said: “First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.

“That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high ― as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world's largest nation.

“Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership.”

The people across the region, however, are not suffering collective short-term amnesia.

Ben Ali and Mubarak were Western-backed rulers. The Obama administration was silent on Tunisia until after Ben Ali's overthrow and publicly supported Mubarak's continuing rule until his ouster.

Mubarak was the US's most dependable Arab client and an active participant in Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights.

Mubarak's regime received more US military aid than any country in the world apart from Israel.

But Obama spoke as if his administration always supported the opposition: “For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights.”

Referring to Tunisia, Obama said: “Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home ― day after day, week after week ― until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.”

Obama failed to mention that it was not just anger at political repression, but intense frustration at poverty and unemployment that drove Tunisians into the street.

This suffering is the direct result of neoliberal economic policies that were forced on Tunisia (and other countries in the region) by the Western powers through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

A May 29 Jadaliyya article by University of London development studies lecturer Adam Hanieh quoted a 2009 World Bank report on the Middle East that outlined some of these policies: “(1) opening protected sectors such as retail and real estate, which have barriers to foreign investors; (2) reducing tariff bands and non-tariff barriers; (3) removing protection of state-owned firms by enforcing hard budget constraints and exposing them to open competition; and (4) eliminating anti-export biases.”

The billions of dollars pledged by Obama to assist Egypt and Tunisia in his May 19 speech were in fact loans, investment capital and debt restructuring that came with requirements for these governments to carry out more privatisations, grant concessions to US corporations and remove subsidies on necessities such as food and fuel.

It was the same with the US$40 billion for development and democracy in the Arab world that the May 28 Sydney Morning Herald said was pledged by Western governments and financial institutions at the G8 meeting.

Jadaliyya reported that an IMF report to the G8 meeting said: “While some increases in public investment may be required, for instance to improve the quality of infrastructure and services in less developed rural areas, the key role will have to be played by the private sector, including by attracting foreign direct investment.

“Thus, government policies should support an enabling environment in which the private sector flourishes.”

The pledges are high-interest loans, not aid. Hanieh said: “From 2000 to 2009, Egypt's level of debt increased by around 15%, despite the fact that the country paid a total of $24.6 billion in debt repayments over the same period.

“Egypt's net transfers on long-term debt between 2000 and 2009, which measures the total difference between received loans and repayments, reached $3.4 billion.

“In other words, contrary to popular belief, more money actually flows from Egypt to Western lenders than vice versa.”

This is why, Obama's rhetoric notwithstanding, the West has shifted from supporting the dictators in Egypt and Tunisia to supporting the regime's that have replaced them ― which are essentially the same regimes without Ben Ali or Mubarak.

These governments are being forced by the pressure of ongoing mass mobilisation to make some popular concessions, such as Egypt moderating its pro-Israel stance. However, they seek to balance concessions with repression against the popular movements.

On May 31, Egyptian journalists Hossam el-Hamalawy, Reem Maged and Nabil Sharaf al-Din were summoned to appear before military judges.

Hossam, a socialist and participant in the uprising against Mubarak, was charged with opposing military trials of civilians and holding the head of the military police, Hamdy Badeen, responsible for the torture and mistreatment of detainees during and after the uprising.

However, neither repression nor co-option has stopped the mass protests. On May 27, more than a million people took part in protests organised by left-wing groups across Egypt demanding deeper changes. The protests called for an end to repression and measures to redistribute wealth to the poor.

In his May 19 speech, Obama referred to some of the number of other Arab countries rocked by mass protests this year. But his selective references reflected the West's desire not to see the revolution spread.

He cited Libya. “Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.

“The message would have been clear: Keep power by killing as many people as it takes.”

Through NATO's military intervention in Libya, the Western powers hope to be able to directly influence the course of the Arab revolutions and established the precedent of continued military involvement.

There is no evidence that the intervention saved thousands of lives. The civil war between the Gadaffi regime and the opposition continues. NATO air strikes and missile attacks are also proving lethal to civilians.

Western reporting of the conflict is as unenlightening as the Gadaffi regime's propaganda. The BBC reported on May 30 that senior officers who defected from Gadaffi's army had revealed that regime was on the point of collapse, its army having only 20% of its pre-conflict strength.

However, NATO forces in Libya, whose intervention in March was predicated on the opposition being on the point of collapse, have been further boosted by the dispatch of attack helicopters by Britain and France, the May 24 Guardian reported.

On June 1, NATO announced that the mission was being extended for 90 days beyond its initial 90-day duration.

The May 26 New York Times reported that at the G8 meeting Sarkozy was privately “pushing for the United States to deploy A-10 attack aircraft and AC-130 gunships in Libya”.

These aircraft routinely fire depleted uranium rounds.

Having established the precedent of direct military intervention in Libya, the West seems reluctant to increase its military entanglements.

Obama's May 19 speech contained fiery denunciations of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But despite the rising civilian bodycount, Western action against Syria has been restricted to ineffectual sanctions.

It seems some Middle Eastern dictators can “keep power by killing as many people as it takes” and escape even serious criticism from the West.

One such dictator is King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain.

“Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security,” Obama said in his Washington speech.

He echoed the Bahraini monarchy's line on the mass, secular democracy movement that has shaken Bahrain since February 14: “We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.”

The Bahraini protesters have been calling for the replacement of the absolute monarchy with a democracy.

Obama, however, merely said: “The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.

“The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.”

He neglected to mention the military occupation of Bahrain by Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates forces since March 15 and the brutal repression that followed. Nor did he have a single word about the extremely repressive nature Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist regime.

Under Saudi occupation of Bahrain, “men have been raped, tortured with electric shocks and beaten by government security forces holding them without charge,” the June 4 Herald Sun said.

Using information obtained under the British Freedom of Information Act, the May 29 Observer revealed Britain was providing training to the elite Saudi forces being deployed in Bahrain ― including snipers who were killing protesters.

Obama and Cameron speak of “democracy, freedom and prosperity”. But their governments are working hard to save the status quo in the Arab world, which as benefited Western interest.

The millions of young men and women across the Arab world who are risking their lives to win change are working in the opposite direction.