The Unfolding Arab Uprisings

— Suzi Weissman interviews Mark LeVine

SUZI WEISSMAN INTERVIEWED Mark LeVine on March 25 for her program “#8220;Beneath the Surface” on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. Her earlier discussion with Mark LeVine on the Egyptian uprising appeared in our previous issue, ATC 151 (March-April 2011). This interview was transcribed by Meleiza Figueroa and has been abridged for publication here.

Suzi Weissman: Welcome to “#8220;Beneath The Surface.” Mark LeVine was in Bahrain, just over a week ago, as the Saudis sent in over a thousand troops to quell the protests there. He’s a professor of history at University of California, Irvine. He’s also a musician; he brought us music a few weeks ago directly from Tahrir Square, and we’re going to talk a little more about that too. He speaks multiple languages and he’s an accomplished rock guitarist. His latest books are Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine ; Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil; and Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.

As I drove in today, I heard the results of the protests in Syria, where the government is reporting that these are protests in favor of the regime, and protesters beg to differ. People are being injured, and perhaps killed. We’ve seen a lot more killing in Bahrain, where you were just a little over a week ago, and the situation continues. So, can you tell us what’s going on?

Mark LeVine: I think the number of deaths is far higher right now in Syria than in Bahrain. Morocco is also seeing increasing protests; in Jordan, there were protests today. The regimes are getting smarter, it seems to me — you have the Jordanian government and Syrian government putting out pro-regime protestors to engage the anti-regime protestors. Then when the violence inevitably starts, almost always on the pro-government side, the army comes in and supposedly “#8220;breaks it up,” but in fact goes after the anti-regime demonstrators. That seems to be the tactic favored by these governments right now.

Wherever you look, it’s becoming more apparent that there was something very unique about Tunis and Egypt, and perhaps it’s that they were first, and governments hadn’t figured out how to respond yet until it was too late. The armies were not willing to attack their own people, mostly because they probably assumed that they could let the top go and still maintain the system. But in places like Egypt and Jordan and Bahrain, you see systems that are based so much ultimately on violence that there’s really no way for these regimes not to react with violence.

SW: I understand that there’s always the element of surprise, and once the regime catches on that they have to fight back, they have certainly more resources at their disposal. But on the other hand, doesn’t this also show that this is a tide that won’t be stopped?

MLV: Oh, it’s definitely a tide that’s not going to be stopped; but the question is really the calculus of violence.

In Bahrain, the government responded not just with violence on its own part, but it brought in the Saudis. It didn’t need the Saudis; it had more than enough of its own police. Most of the police and security services are not Bahraini by the way; they’re from Syria, or Yemen, or Pakistan. But it was more of a signal to say that the Saudis will not let Bahrain’s monarchy fall.

If the Bahrain monarchy goes, what leg do any of the other Gulf monarchies have to stand on? They’re basically all related in a sense, and certainly are all very similar systems.

I think the most important message was to the United States, in fact — that the Saudis were not going to let Bahrain go. And even if the Obama administration was going to do in Bahrain what it did in Egypt with Mubarak, and throw the king under the bus so to speak, if it seemed he couldn’t control the situation, the Saudis raised the ante and regionalized it right away, and immediately created a conflict with Iran, which forces the United States to choose sides.

The Saudis were acting wisely in terms of their own interests, but it’s obviously a disaster for Bahraini democracy. And the impact has been in fact successful in a way — I was on the phone with a colleague who’s one of the main human rights activists and monitors in Bahrain, and he told me that many of the opposition groups are calling for people not to mobilize right now, and not to protest because the army has literally cut off the hospitals. If they go on the streets and there’s a bloodbath, they can’t even take the injured to hospitals to be treated.

SW: I just got an email this morning that said a source in Bahrain, who wishes to remain anonymous for personal safety, told the Institute of Public Accuracy that the regime has just arrested Lin Noueihed of Reuters and some other reporters. Bahrain is imposing a new martial law, and the people are calling for help, and said that the United Nations should at least meet to discuss what’s happening there.

MLV: Well, the UN absolutely should meet. The problem is that the very same coalition that’s backing (the uprising in) Libya has no interest in intervening in any way — never mind violently, even nonviolently — in Bahrain. And really, the governing situation in all this is the absolute hypocrisy of what’s going on. I mean, the Saudis and others are backing a no-fly zone and active military intervention in Libya, when they’re wholeheartedly supporting a crackdown against democracy activists in Bahrain.

In Bahrain, as of right now 5-10 people have been killed, while in Libya, it’s potentially thousands, so I don’t want to make easy or facile analogies. But certainly, in Bahrain, the monarchy has decided it will do whatever is necessary to completely prevent any move that would open up the system in any significant way, and it has the wholehearted support of the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and apparently the United States and the Western allies as well.

Given that all their energy now is spent in Libya, where things can go south quickly for the United States and for NATO if Qaddafi figures out how to survive over the next few days, they’re not going to rock the boat in Bahrain. That’s giving the government and its Saudi allies even more latitude to crack down.

Egypt’s Transition Hijacked

SW: I wanted to ask you about going back to Egypt, and the people there who so successfully got rid of Mubarak. You could say that the same regime seems to be in power, minus Mubarak. What do your Egyptian friends say about how they see their future struggle in light of the army’s effective hijacking of this democratic transition?

MLV: The activists whom I was with in Egypt never had any illusions about the army. There was this narrative for public consumption, as people were chanting “#8220;The army and the people are one hand.” But no one among the activists bought it, and the army of course knew it wasn’t true either. It was a marriage of convenience for the purpose of tamping down the situation and preventing a bloodbath. Because believe me, the night before Mubarak left, everyone was expecting in Tahrir Square what ultimately happened in Pearl Roundabout or in Tripoli.

But the key really is ordinary people. The youth who made this revolution possible are not the other 60-70 million people of Egypt, who are generally conservative, poor, much more interested in stability because they have so little hope for the future. And this is creating a situation where even though they may understand in their heads what the army’s capable of, if they have to choose between stability right now and a bunch of Facebook activists, they will throw out the Facebook activists in a minute if they think they can have some kind of normalcy.

What’s happened with this counterrevolution — and I think you can use the term, because my friends there are already using the term — is that you had an alliance again, purely tactical but useful for both sides, between the NDP (Mubarak’s old party) and at least significant elements of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, both of whom had an interest in getting the referendum (on Constitutional changes) passed quickly and getting a transfer of power before these newer political movements can organize at the grassroots and build a base.

Their problem is that the NDP by definition cannot have a discourse that supports workers’ rights — it was all about preventing workers’ rights — while the Muslim Brotherhood has largely been a working- and middle-class movement. If it turns against labor, if it turns against workers or if it has nothing to say to help workers’ demands, it will start losing votes very quickly. The Muslim Brotherhood has not been a very economically activist group, it never developed the kind of critique of capital and support for labor that you saw other, more secular groups develop.

In a new, semi-democratic system, I think what you’re going to see that the groups that are most able to mobilize quickly are going to get the jump on the younger activists who are actually at the heart of the revolution. But if there manages to be installed a democratic system, with free elections, where voters’ wishes can be fairly and accurately represented, those groups aren’t going to last in Parliament too long if they can’t deliver fairly quickly to the tens of millions of people in the working class.

So the labor movement and the Left more generally, who are behind the revolution, are going to have to deal with those issues; they’re going to have to appeal to voters directly on economic terms, and remind them that the Brotherhood is now sleeping with the NDP that was oppressing them. They have to remind them that neither have any kind of economic program that can raise their wages above two dollars a day. And people’s allegiance will turn fairly quickly if the new regime can’t ameliorate their condition.

SW: We haven’t talked about what happened to Ramy Essam, the wonderful musician whose music we played here. The YouTube video of his beaten and tortured body was so horrific — he was arrested by the military shortly after the victorious days at Tahrir. [For details, see — ed.] What can you tell us?

MLV: Well, he was actually on the way to do a concert. He was walking past the square, and saw the beginning of a commotion. Basically the army had driven in the thugs to start breaking up the protestors who were still in the square — probably only a few hundred — and the thugs pointed out people to arrest. Some pointed out Ramy, and the army came to him and he figured, “#8220;okay, I’m not going to react, I’ll just go with them and talk to them, because what are they going to do?”

The next thing he knew, they took him inside the Antiquities museum, which is still being used to this very day — which is shocking, this long after the revolution — as a detention and torture center by the military to which we’re still giving billions of dollars, by the way. They just started beating him, shocking him with a taser, stomping on his head, and viciously beating him.

When they were done, they just let him go. That was it. It was clearly a warning, you know. If you’re going to continue to try to fight us, this is what you can expect. But Ramy refuses to be cowed; most of the activists refuse to be cowed.

SW: And so the repression could backfire?

MLV: In the long run, it could backfire as long as the protest movement can figure out a way to remind the mass of Egyptians who were not part of this revolution that they matter, and they actually care about their concerns, even though they’re being portrayed as a bunch of young, secular, Western-educated leftists who don’t represent the real Egypt. That’s really what’s going to decide how this plays out in the near term.

We need to think long term, because this revolution has just started — it’s two months old or something? The French Revolution took ten years, the American Revolution took arguably 100 years to play itself out. This is going to take a generation before we know what happens.

Libya and Beyond

SW: Well, revolutions move in spikes and waves, rather than days or years. But I want to go back to one question: How are the activists viewing the UN,/Western Europe/U.S. intervention in Libya? Does it help them? Does it send a good message? Is it worrisome?

MLV: I have to say that when I’m talking to people in Bahrain, or Egypt or Syria, they’re so caught up in their own situation, Libya doesn’t even come up.

No one wants to see Qaddafi win, which would be an absolute disaster. Everyone understands that the goals in intervening are not purely humanitarian, as they weren’t in Kosovo or in any other place that the United States has intervened on seemingly humanitarian grounds.

But the immediate problems that these other places are facing are so great that they can’t even think too hard about what Libya means, except to know that someone like Qaddafi just has to go, and to have real sympathy for the people of Libya who are being massacred by him.

It’s hard for people to think systemically, even though this is a systemic issue. But I’m already seeing on Facebook pages of Egyptian friends the same kind of little tags or banners supporting the people of Syria now. And in fact, each day they have to create a new little banner art to support another group of people who’ve been massacred in another Arab country.

SW: I was trying to figure out whether there’s a difference in the perception of, say, Qaddafi’s regime and the Syrian or Bahraini regime, all of which have never hesitated to use very repressive means.

MLV: Very few of these regimes really rule by any kind of hegemony, there’s just a kind of authoritarian bargain that works for a while. But it’s a very delicate bargain — the regimes have to master a combination of economic and social issues to keep people just at a level where chaos and revolt seems to be more costly and risky than the status quo, which is at least somehow tolerable. And that’s now been lost.

The use of ideological discourses, whether it’s religion or nationalism, also has kind of fallen apart in a lot of places. Now you get open conflict, and what every single person in each of these countries is starting to decide — since the regime has no more legitimacy, and fear has been eroded — is what’s the cost/benefit analysis of hitting the streets? The regime is trying to make it, in most of these places, as high as possible, by saying “#8220;you’ll probably die.”

In Egypt and Tunisia, people came out so quickly that the regime could never catch up, and people lost that fear quickly. Now you see in other places — Syria, who knows what could happen in Jordan in the next few days, and in Yemen — that the regimes have been trying to get ahead of them and use enough violence, especially in Bahrain, to stamp it down. And it’s worked in some places, but in Yemen it hasn’t. Every country has its own internal dynamic.

I don’t think you can make a general theoretical statement about a trend in all this, but certainly the factor is the combination of violence, complete delegitimization of the regimes, and whether people really are starting to have hope that what could replace these systems is something that could be arguably better for them.

SW: There is a vigorous debate going on in the U.S. Left, within the Right, and in the government. Do we in the Left get into bed with the U.S. military to help prevent a massacre in Libya? You said that there are more than just humanitarian reasons for the intervention. But does it mean, here in the United States, that we should be supporting all this firepower to prevent the cost that you mentioned for people in the Arab world going into the streets?

MLV: I have to be honest and say I think that with a situation like Libya, I can see good arguments on both sides. I’m not going to dismiss out of hand people who said, “#8220;Look, whatever we think of the U.S. military, what Qaddafi was doing was horrific,” because I’ve spoken with Libyans and know friends in Libya who have watched what’s happening, who are as Left as you can be, who are begging for the United States to come in. There are certainly justifications one could make in this situation.

But if it starts in Libya, what’s going to happen in Syria? Since we don’t like the Syrian government either, are we going to start a no-fly zone there? If we don’t have an articulated policy, you can’t blame people for suddenly moving to arms when they’re being slaughtered, and assume the West will bail them out. This could quickly spiral out of control. We haven’t even talked about Africa, about Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), and all these other countries where people could look at Libya and say, “#8220;If they’re doing it, why don’t we?” And then where are we going to be?

The question is, how did we let it get to this point — how have the American people allowed their government for decades to be so hypocritical, and to support these authoritarian regimes, and to continue at this very moment to support some authoritarian regimes and not others?

ATC 152, May-June 2011