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Tumultuous Middle East, Timid White House

Interviewee: Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History, University of Michigan
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 11, 2011

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While Egypt continues to deal with the fallout of its popular revolution, and the turbulence in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria remains unresolved, the example set by Tunisia remains the model for change in the Middle East, says Middle East expert Juan Cole, who edits the blog Informed Comment. Cole notes that among the successes of Tunisia's transition are the abolition of the old ruling party and the secret police, and the end of censorship, resulting in unfettered access to information, which is rare in the region. He contrasts that with Egypt, where the military remains in control and protest movement leaders are worried that parliamentary elections scheduled for September will mean a return of old leadership. Cole is concerned that the Obama administration has been "consistently behind the curve" in supporting protest movements in the region and thinks the White House should be more forceful in encouraging change.

Looking back on Egypt, what caused the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak?

A major force for change was the textile workers at Mahalla Al-Kubra, an industrial town that is a distant suburb of Cairo. There had been an attempt by the textile workers to strike in April 2008. It was stopped forcibly by the government. But the same organization that had been behind that strike move was important in calling for the January 25 demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The blue collar workers were supported by the white collar workers, who also struck this time. And they were supported by the youth movement--college students, recent graduates, people in high-technology sectors.

Egypt's military, which is in charge, had a plebiscite last month on amendments to the constitution, which was opposed by many of the young people who pushed for the revolution. What is happening now in Egypt? There was a rally in Tahrir Square on Friday calling for Mubarak (al-Jazeera) to be arrested by the military.

The protest movement wanted Mubarak put on trial or exiled. That hasn't happened. The movement was also unhappy about the referendum [which was approved overwhelmingly] because the plan now is to hold parliamentary elections in September, which is quite soon.

The government has not dissolved the National Democratic Party, the old ruling party led by Mubarak and his son Gamal. The fear is that if elections are held as soon as September, the youth movement, the workers, and so forth won't be able to mount effective campaigns, and parliament will end up dominated by the old ruling party and by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim fundamentalist party which the [Mubarak] government sometimes allowed to do well in elections. In 2005, you had eighty-eight Muslim Brotherhood members elected (EUObserver) out of 444 in parliament. The Brotherhood had to run on other party platforms, because according to the law, religious parties were barred. There could be in Egypt in September a repeat of the 2005 parliament dominated by the National Democratic Party with a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood. The people who made this revolution would get cut out.

Where would you focus your most attention in the Middle East? Libya, which is in a civil war with NATO aiding the rebels? Syria, with its sporadic violence? Bahrain, where there is a Shiite, Sunni split? Yemen?

There could be in Egypt in September a repeat of the 2005 parliament dominated by the National Democratic Party with a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood. The people who made this revolution would get cut out.

In terms of significant political change, Tunisia shouldn't be neglected. Here you have a country where they have abolished the Orwellian Ministry of Information, which was in charge of censorship. There is now no interference in the importation of print materials from abroad. I don't know of another Arab country that has that freedom of print literature. Even Lebanon has some limitations. The Tunisians say they have abolished the secret police. Again, most Arab countries have a secret police. Tunisia is also moving toward elections, and they did dissolve the old ruling party. Everybody important has disassociated themselves from former president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. People in Egypt know what has been achieved in Tunisia and are making similar demands now that their country is moving in those directions.

How do you think the situation is going to resolve itself in Libya?

I was glad to see the murderous march on Benghazi stopped in its tracks. People are often impatient in expecting immediate results from an intervention like this. That's not the way the world works. There was a NATO intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s. It came late in the day, and there had already been a big loss of life. It was over a year from when the NATO intervention in Bosnia began to the time of the Dayton Peace Accords [in November 1995]. They found in Bosnia that nationalist forces could camouflage their helicopters and make it difficult to police a no-fly zone. The Qaddafi regime is doing similar kinds of things now. I do expect over time that if NATO and the Arab League show resolve, Qaddafi's military capabilities will be degraded. Assuming that the rebels can hold, I expect the advantage to shift against Qaddafi. I wouldn't be surprised if the elite in Tripoli and the working classes get tired of finding it difficult to find food and rise up against the Qaddafis.

You don't think there is interest in a negotiated settlement between the rebels and Qaddafi?

The rebels say that they won't accept that any Qaddafis remain in power. I think that they wouldn't be so opposed to some members of the cabinet and the officer corps remaining. All the rebels are really asking for is the kind of thing that happened in Tunisia--that the ruler and his mafia-like family be expelled.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad seems to be struggling to decide what to do.

His regime began by trying to make it costly to protest. There was heavy-handed intervention and loss of life. Now he has offered some concessions. In the 1960s, the Arab nationalists in Syria stripped the Kurds of their citizenship. This has left a very substantial number of people without citizenship or stateless in their own country. There have been numerous protests over the years, and they are starting again now in sympathy with the protest movement elsewhere in the country. Assad with the stroke of his pen restored their citizenship (al-Jazeera). This is a significant concession, but I don't know if it will entirely satisfy the Kurds. He then announced that he had lifted the ban on full-face veiling, which the secular Arab nationalist Ba'ath party had implemented in Syria to combat the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalists Sunni clans. He is trying to make the more fundamentalist Sunnis happier with this move.

Bahrain has a classic Sunni/Shiite problem, which is exacerbated because the Saudis are so concerned. How do you see that working out?

The U.S. preference was for the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain to find some accommodation for the Shiite demands. From the Sunni monarchy point of view, that was a slippery slope.

That hasn't gone well for the largely Shiite protesters. Bahrain is a tiny Gulf country. Its citizen population is something on the order of six hundred thousand. Traditionally it was probably a good two-thirds Shiite, although the Sunni monarchy has given a lot of Sunni citizenship to expatriates. Probably the mix is now about 58 percent Shiite versus the rest as Sunnis. [There are] another six hundred thousand or so expatriates. Many come from South Asia. You have a big Christian population as well. Most of these newer expatriates don't have much hope in becoming citizens, although some of the Sunnis are granted citizenship over time. The Shiites are more rural. They allege employment and educational discrimination. They haven't gotten the cushy government jobs. They haven't competed as well for the international jobs. The Shiite majority status is not reflected in the political arrangements of the country. The king, who came to power as an emir in 1999, made himself king in 2002 and has instituted a new constitution. That constitution provides for a parliament, two houses and elections. The upper house of parliament is appointed by the king and I believe is completely Sunni. The lower house has elections, but the districts have been gerrymandered so that the Shiite majority only got eighteen out of forty seats. Things are set up in the constitution so that the lower house can be overruled by the upper house, and both can be overruled by the king.

The protest movement in Bahrain looked as though it was a major force and there were some achievements. But the Saudis became extremely alarmed that their own Shiite population might become restless. It lives largely in the oil-producing areas, so that is a threat to the kingdom. From a Saudi point of view, Shiite unrest equals Iranian meddling. They felt it was necessary to intervene, and they sent troops into Bahrain.

The United States has its Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, so the whole thing put the United States in a very difficult position, as many of these revolts have. The United States is in many ways beholden to the Saudis and needs their good will. The U.S. preference was for the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain to find some accommodation for the Shiite demands. From the Sunni monarchy point of view, that was a slippery slope. If they gave in a little bit to the Shiites, they feared seeing the monarchy overthrown and the Shiites in power. They were uncompromising and unyielding.

Are relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States strained?

They are strained certainly over the Bahrain issue. Behind the scenes, the United States did not want the Saudis to send in troops and they didn't want an attempt made to simply crush the protestors. The United States is afraid that these moves may lead to future instability, which is a bigger threat to the naval position of the Americans than a compromise might be. The Saudis are also upset at the United States for not supporting Mubarak at the end. They feel as though the United States threw Mubarak under the bus, although to be fair the administration did support Mubarak longer than was actually wise. Early on it was clear that the United States thought Mubarak could weather this storm.

Riyadh is petrified that these protest movements will spread to Saudi Arabia itself. They want an absolute monarchy and no popular input into government. The Saudis right now are not happy with the way the world is going. They see the rise of Iranian influence in their region. They are very upset that the United States essentially installed a Shiite government in Baghdad, and they feel as though the United States is a fair-weather friend--that as soon as you have substantial protests in the street it is willing to turn against its allies.

If President Obama asked you for advice on U.S. policy what would you say?

My advice would be to not be quite as conservative in sticking with these dictators as long as he has tended to do. Obama in many ways came into office reacting against the muscular Wilsonian [policies] of the Bush administration. The Obama administration has been consistently behind the curve in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and so forth. The speech that Obama made about Egypt a week after Mubarak fell ended up being a nothing speech. Had he given it just a week before, it would have been one of the great speeches of his presidency.

While I understand as a great power you've had a great ally with someone like President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and that you are very cautious about the prospect of him leaving, when you have tens of thousands of people coming out in the capital and the major cities week after week and you've got a history of disturbances in that country, for Saleh to dig in his heels is very unproductive. This week, the Obama administration decided Saleh must go. That's really late in the day to come to that conclusion.

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