A New Balance of Forces

An Interview with Samih Farsoun

by Joe Stork
published in MER168

Samih Farsoun, a contributing editor of this magazine and professor of sociology at American University, recently visited the Middle East. He spoke with Joe Stork in early November 1990.

What is your assessment of the impact of this crisis on the balance of forces in the region?

I would rank this crisis as the third most significant set of events of this century in terms of its impact on the region. The first was World War I, with the resulting Balkanization of the Arab world. The second was the Palestine disaster of 1948, with all that followed. This crisis is on that order. Even if it is resolved by a war that only lasts six hours, or without a war, things will never be the same. Attitudes have been permanently changed, on the street and in the regimes. Relationships with the West have been cast in a sharper, harsher light.

There is an interesting slogan on the street in the Maghrib and in conversations in many places in the region: La shiqaq wa la nifaq, kulluna ma‘a al-‘Iraq (No sedition, no hypocrisy; all of us are with Iraq). There is an historical reference here. Back in the seventh century, when the Umayyads defeated ‘Ali and set up the caliphate in Damascus, the caliph sent a major figure, al-Hajjaj, to govern Iraq. He started his reign by saying, “Ya ahl al-‘Iraq ya ahl shiqaq ya ahl nifaq” (“O people of Iraq, o people of sedition, o people of hypocrisy,”) -- in other words, your heads are ripe for cutting if you rebel again. The transference of this well-known remark with its resonance in Arab history to the current crisis testifies to a strong popular current in the region.

In Tunisia I heard this on the street, and among established political groups. In Damascus this sentiment shows up in the graffiti. In the view of many Arabs, there is an enormous stench of hypocrisy surrounding the entire American intervention.

Washington has Arabs fighting Arabs, they say, it has Arab legitimacy by virtue of the Arab League vote, it has control of the oil and OPEC, and it has the whole thing paid for by the Saudis, Kuwaitis and the others. That’s behind a lot of Arab cynicism and hostility toward the US and toward [Egyptian President Husni] Mubarak.

This hostility stems from Mubarak’s conduct of the Arab League meeting in Cairo. The common view is that Mubarak crammed down the throats of the assembled summit leaders a resolution worked up by the Gulf states. He yielded the floor only to the Omani representative to present that resolution, and did not allow the amendments that the Algerians wanted to introduce, or the alternatives that the PLO wanted to put forward. People saw this as fulfilling Washington’s need, a need of the Gulf states as well, to get an Arab fig leaf for its intervention. The belief is that the chances of the resolution’s passing would not have been great without this tremendous pressure, and if the Gulf states’ resolution had been discussed alongside these other ones.

Wouldn’t the no war option be much less risky?

Yes, but the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and the Egyptian government are not content with a solution that leaves a militarily powerful Iraq in place. They share the American view on this.

The Arab proposals, mostly advanced by Jordan and the PLO, provide for Arab forces to replace Iraqi forces within Kuwait and international forces, perhaps under the UN, to replace US forces in Saudi Arabia. But Washington has rejected all feelers and proposals along these lines. The view in the region is that the Americans are determined to go to war.

There is another interesting historical parallel that many people there invoke: how the British turned against the rising Egyptian leader Muhammad ‘Ali in the 1830s to thwart the emergence of a power center in Egypt. Muhammad ‘Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha, led forces all the way into Anatolia, threatening to do in the decrepit Ottoman Empire and replace it with a more vibrant Egypt-centered power. The British intervened and created a new alliance of local forces between the Turks and themselves to beat Muhammad ‘Ali. The French deserted Muhammad ‘Ali with the understanding that they would have free rein in North Africa. They reduced Egypt to a minor player, and a very indebted one.

This is another manifestation of the very strong historic memory in the region. Very few there like Saddam Hussein. They see him as a repressive tyrant. All of the political jokes that I heard were at Saddam’s expense. People see the situation more in terms of Iraq emerging economically weak and militarily strong, unexpectedly to be sure, out of a debilitating war to challenge the existing balance of power in the region, and the United States determined to cut Iraq down to size.

What is the sense there of the cohesion of the Arab camp aligning with Washington? Even within Saudi society there seem to be second thoughts about the course they’ve embarked on.

There are debates in Saudi Arabia, but I got no sense that they have been sufficiently pervasive or divisive to challenge those who have made this decision. Some people, perhaps too conspiratorially, see a certain division of labor between the Saudis and the Americans, with Defense Minister Prince Sultan, for instance, putting out peace feelers for the coalition. Others look rather at the fact that Sultan has an Iraqi wife and ties with Saddam, whereas Prince ‘Abdallah has a Syrian wife.

And has never been so keen on the American connection.

True. There are rumors that ‘Abdallah may be under some constraints, house arrest even. This is based solely on the fact that ‘Abdallah has not been very visible in this crisis. King Fahd took the decision to invite in US troops, and apparently Bandar, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, played a crucial role in convincing him to do so.

Is it possible to draw up a balance sheet in terms of the impact of this crisis on the balance of forces in the region?

On the minus side, a war would lead to unbelievable human and infrastructural devastation. A war would probably not be limited to Kuwait and southern Iraq. And a war could well result in the dismemberment of Iraq.

In terms of the impact of war on other regimes, the key question is what would happen inside the military establishments as they confront not only Iraq but the considerable domestic discontent this will arouse. This crisis could produce changes on the order of the 1948 Palestinian disaster. The prime candidates for upheaval are Syria and Egypt. There is no visible opposition in Syria, but popular sentiment is not with the regime on this.

In Egypt, the Islamist forces that are not directly funded by Saudi Arabia represent a strong anti-American force as do Arab nationalists and leftists. In the region, Islamists and nationalists are now competing in the way that [the Palestinian Islamist group] Hamas and the PLO are competing in the Occupied Territories.

Some have spoken of this as the first political crisis of the Islamist movements, caught between leadership and funding ties to Saudi Arabia and strongly anti-American street sentiment. Is this resolving in favor of Iraq?

It is split. There are enough establishment Islamists to constitute a continuing body of support for the Saudis.

There’s an important history here. Through the 1950s and 1960s, leftist and secular forces were ascendant. After 1967, the Islamist forces began to compete, but the Islamist ideology was not well defined. When they would say “Islam is the answer,” others would ask, “What is the question?” The Palestine conflict and social justice issues dominated political agendas. Until 1979, the Islamists were mainly working on behalf of conservative regimes, but there was a much more radical undercurrent that became a real force with the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Now the popular Islamist forces and the secular nationalist forces have come together, fusing these two currents on a mass scale as never before, with the goal of overthrowing the old order, getting rid of American influence, asserting Arab independence. The Israeli killings at the Haram al-Sharif in early October heightened this dynamic even further. The Gulf regimes are increasingly delegitimized.

Another new factor is the class question, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” With this crisis, Iraq has raised this issue on a pan-Arab level as it never has been raised before. Up to this point, the equity question was an issue in individual countries, most recently in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan. The downturn of the “oil economy” of the Arab east, following the dramatic capital and labor flows of the 1970s that tied the region together in new ways, brings together issues of wealth and poverty and social mobility on a regional scale like never before. The financial aid that the rich oil states provided -- protection money, if you like -- was disbursed formally through the Arab League, informally under the table, and bilaterally by the development banks of separate states, all in addition to individual remittances.

There was a generalized boom that raised incomes and living standards; its decline in the latter 1980s raised the class issue on a regional level. No leader had articulated its regional dimension until Saddam did, after the invasion of Kuwait. His motives are opportunist and suspect, to say the least, but he managed to tap into tremendous resentment, and this has immense medium- and longer-term implications. The national question remains in the fore, but the connection with the class question has been made.

One thing that helped this along has been the coverage over the years in the popular Arab press, even the press financed and controlled by the oil states in the region and in Europe, about the fabulous oil-derived wealth of individuals -- tales of corruption, gambling and squandering. The corresponding impression is that even if corruption does occur on some scale in Iraq, the surplus has largely been plowed into the country for its development.

In Iraq corruption and waste does not take the form of $100 million nights in Monte Carlo, but surely there has been impressive accumulation of private wealth.

Sure, but it is not well known or well publicized, and to the extent that it is known it is on a completely different order of magnitude.

The hostility one hears toward the sheikhs in the Gulf is, frankly, amazing. It is some combination of pent-up anger and a certain opportunism in the context of the present crisis, but it is impressive nonetheless.

It is still largely unformed, but this class issue is being articulated and is being tied to the national question. People are connecting private accumulation, political conservatism, American linkage and corrupt behavior. When you tie this class resentment to the outrage over US hypocrisy and the double standard on the Palestine question, you are talking about very powerful and volatile sentiments among the people. The nature of the resolution of this crisis will determine the volatility and strength of this current. In the event of war, it will have greater consequences, and sooner.

These issues have raised the stakes for all concerned. What happens to the resources of the region? How is this income spent, and where?

There is greater assertion of an Arab claim to what was regarded as Saudi oil or Kuwaiti oil. The “have-nots” got a small slice, but the Saudis and Kuwaitis determined how much they got. This is changing. Even if Saddam didn’t intend to take up the banner of the “have-nots,” the issue has emerged in a way that will not easily be reversed, war or no war. A war will, I think, unleash a popular struggle that will cross borders, not one that will be controlled by one or several states. There may be state-state conflicts, but this other dimension will be there, too. The political situation will be very fluid. The way this crisis is resolved will help determine the timing, the issues and the terrain of struggle far into the next century.

The no war option is preferable on every level, but there are negative consequences. The regime in Baghdad will almost surely emerge stronger, at least in the short term. The situation reminds me of the dilemma that confronted Iranian left forces when support for Khomeini appeared to be the only effective way of ending the Shah’s tyranny.

I sense no such ambivalence now. The scope of the current crisis is so overwhelming that people are not thinking of the period after the crisis in terms of Saddam. He is the butt of their jokes, but people are not spending time now trying to figure out how to cope with a stronger Saddam.

A subdued and devastated Iraq would mean a period of renewed neo-colonialism. The overwhelming sentiment is: with Kuwait against Iraq, but with Iraq against the United States. Resurgent American regional hegemony would benefit only a very thin elite stratum, and leave the region more fragmented than ever before. Between 2 and 5 percent of the Arabs will control and benefit from exploitation of the oil wealth, and continue to invest much of the proceeds abroad.

If Iraq survives, it will be seen as a successful challenge to the US and to Israel in the region. This will make possible other changes. Not necessarily through Saddam as an Arab Bismarck, but the general sentiment in the region sees Iraq as presently standing against wholesale American economic and political domination of the region.

One important advance has already occurred, war or no war. The Palestine question is finally linked to the political future of the rest of the region, and those with interests in the region must deal with it. The United States will have to do something, sequentially if not simultaneously, despite all of Bush’s disclaimers.

A swift defeat of Iraq would eliminate that pressure.

I think so, but no one in the region thinks there will be a swift defeat. The problem is that some people here in Washington think it is possible. In many ways, Iraq is doing in the region what America is doing globally. Both are weakened economically, and compensating for this by asserting military and political strength. The problem is that Iraq’s regional ascendancy is colliding with Washington’s global descent.

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