The revolutionary struggle for democratic and economic freedoms continues to grow in Tunisia and Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
Western powers are working to block these struggles — just as they supported the fallen dictators until the very end.
Vast sums of money have been pledged by the United States, European Union and the Group of Eight (G8 — the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Russia and Japan) to aid what British Prime Minister David Cameron termed “democracy, freedom and prosperity” in the Middle East.
The May 26-27 G8 summit in Deauville, France, released a statement saying: “We, members of the G8, strongly support the aspirations of the Arab Spring as well as those of the Iranian people.
“Multilateral development banks could provide over [US]$20bn ... for Egypt and Tunisia for 2011-2013, in support of suitable reform efforts.”
The nature of the “suitable reform efforts” was not spelled out. Nor was the fact that these pledges were largely made up of loans to stimulate foreign investment, not aid.
In a May 29 opinion piece for Al Jazeera, independant journalist Soumaya Ghannoushi said: “These [pledges] include a $40bn dollar aid package that would drown these economies deeper in debt, a two million dollar facility to support private investment…
“As usual, investment and aid are conditional on adoption of the American neoliberal economic model … and on further binding economies to US and European markets under the banner of ‘trade integration’.”
The African Development Bank (AfDB) promised US$500 million in 20 year loans to Tunisia.
AfDB President Donald Kaberuka was reported in a June 3 Magharebia.com article as saying during a recent visit to Tunisia that the north African nation was “still a trustworthy partner and during the recent events, it continued to fulfil its pledges to AfDB”.
Mustapha Kamel Nabli, the governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, responded that Tunisia needs not only loans but “aid” for the present “transition”.
Saudi Arabia’s regime has also made available US$4 billion in “soft loans, deposits and grants”, to Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces.
In an interview with Viewpointonline.net, Fatehi Chamkhi, a Tunisian member of the Comittee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, said: “In the last 23 years, Tunis has paid the international donors a whopping sum of five billion dollars in the name of debt retirement.”
Economies crippled by debt and devastated by neoliberal policies enforced in return for loans was one of the factors that led to the Arab Spring.
The interim government of Tunisia, however, has encouraged financial and political dependence on the West, especially France — the former colonial power and one of Ben Ali’s key allies.
On a visit to France before the G8 conference, Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi told Europe1 radio station on May 18: “Tunisia deserves engagement. It is trying to install a democratic process. All the ingredients are there.
“Tunisia has always been exemplary, including in the democratic process. We will work harder to go as fast as possible on this path.”
A French foreign ministry statement that day praised “[Tunisia]’s 1250 French companies, which employ over 100,000 Tunisians, also contributing to Tunisia’s growth and economic development”.
Essebsi and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon stressed the need for France and Tunisia to fight “illegal immigration” together — meaning keeping Tunisian migrants out of France.
On May 17, Tunisia’s defence minister, Abdelkarim Zbidi, and French interior minister Claude Gueant signed an agreement on bilateral “security” arrangements between the two nations.
The Tunisian News Agency said on May 18 the agreement would create a new military training centre in Gafsa, Tunisia for 250 students by June 2013.
Gafsa was the scene of violent repression of an uprising against Ben Ali’s rule in 2008.
Western governments have also been romancing civil society organisations that were involved in anti-dictatorship struggles.
In his May 19 speech on the Middle East and North Africa, US President Barack Obama said: “We must ... reach the people who will shape the future — particularly young people... [and] provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned.”
This has meant an expansion of programs to push pliable sectors of “civil society” in a pro-Western direction. US funding for such programs will be doubled to US$3.4 million, Ghannoushi said.
One such program is the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), which is dedicated to “examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the US can best support that process”.
Esraa Abdel Fattah, a leading Egyptian democracy activist and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was recently hosted by POMED for a forum titled “Youth Activism, the January 25 Revolution, and Egypt’s Transition”.
Ghannoushi also said “meetings have also been held between high ranking US officials and [Egypt’s] Muslim Brotherhood last month in Cairo, while [Tunisian Islamist party] Ennahda’s deputy chairman has recently returned from a visit to Washington to ‘discuss democratic transition in Tunisia’.”
The rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia has also worried regional and international powers. Saudi Arabia’s loans to Egypt’s military are suspected of being aimed at bolstering the regime’s power and limiting the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A May 27 New York Times article said “an empowered Muslim Brotherhood could damage Saudi legitimacy by presenting a model of Islamic law different from the Wahhabi tradition of an absolute monarch”.
The repressive pro-Western regimes throughout the Middle East have been an important component of the “war on terror”, providing intelligence on Islamist groups and a veneer of legitimacy to the demonisation of Islamists by Western governments.
In an interview with AP, an anonymous European security official said: “Although the [state security] agencies were seen as being particularly brutal, they were often very effective.
“I think it’s too soon to say what will happen in North Africa, but it’s fair to say that we’re concerned further instability could affect intelligence exchanges.”
Western governments are continuing to push the neoliberal economic policies that create poverty and unemployment — yet claim to support the social movements pushing for change.
This reflects the strategy of containment being adopted by the West.
Western forces are keen to restore business as usual — with more acceptable faces of Western domination at the helm.
Many Western commentators say the Arab Spring is simply about a desire for democratic elections and more civil liberties. But such demands cannot be separated from the desire of the poor and working classes to press their interests — for the redistribution of wealth and more equitable development.
The Arab Spring has been fuelled by the social crisis brought about by the global capitalist system — which has caused mass poverty, starvation, spiraling food and fuel prices, unemployment and poor working conditions.
In Egypt, protests on May 27 drew more than 1 million people to the streets. Speakers condemned the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and called for a “second revolution” to continue the drive for democracy and equality.
Waves of strikes — by people from rail workers and garbage collectors to teachers, factory workers and doctors — have broken out in Tunisia and Egypt since the start of the revolutions.
It is this push by ordinary people to have their interests met that the West is so keen to block.
Part of this aims to break the pan-Arab solidarity that has been a key part of the Arab Spring. However, the moves to co-opt the revolutionary movements is easier said than done.
Ghannoushi said: “To Arabs, the US is a force of occupation draped in a thin cloak of democracy and human rights.”
She also pointed to the oppression of Palestians as a defining issue in the Arab struggle for freedom: “Israel has been denying the citizenship rights of 20 per cent of its Arab inhabitants and right of return of six million Palestinian refugees.
“In vain, the US tries to reconcile the irreconcilable and preach democracy, while occupying and aiding in occupation. But in a region that forms one interconnected geographic, cultural and political sphere, you cannot liberate Egyptians, Syrians, or Tunisians, without liberating Palestinians.”